Everglades agriculture leases being challenged

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Wildlife Federation is challenging two no-bid, 30-year lease extensions for sugar and vegetable farming in the state-owned Everglades Agricultural Area.

The legal group Earthjustice filed the case Thursday on behalf of the federation. It will be heard by an administrative law judge.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved the extensions last month on about 14,000 acres in Palm Beach County in exchange for other property needed for Everglades restoration.

Earthjustice lawyer David Guest said the extensions are contrary to the public interest because they would continue the flow of agricultural pollutants into the Everglades for an excessive period. He said such leases normally are limited to six years.

"We should be using these public lands to clean up the Everglades, not allowing corporations to continue to pollute our public lands," Guest said in a statement.

"It's a fact that this agricultural runoff is filled with chemicals that wreck the Everglades," he added. "As any cook knows, when your soup is too salty, you don't add more salt."

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Patrick Gillespie wrote in an email that the extensions are essential to secure property for Everglades restoration as well as water storage and protection of the Caloosahatchee River and estuary.

Scott and the Cabinet are named as respondents in their roles as trustees of state lands. So is the department, which had recommended the extensions for vegetable grower A. Duda and Sons Inc. and sugar cane company Florida Crystals Corp.

DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard told the panel at a Jan. 23 meeting that exchanging the extension for restoration lands would be quicker and less expensive than condemning the property.

Gillespie wrote that Scott is steadfastly committed to restoring the Everglades and noted he has asked the Legislature to double funding for the project in the next budget year to $60 million.

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