Groups worry Everglades land buys will slow

Published: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 12:13 a.m.
WEST PALM BEACH - The massive plan to revive the Everglades includes buying up hundreds of thousands of acres that used to be part of the River of Grass and undoing decades worth of abuse.
The state has purchased nearly half of the 403,000 acres needed for the restoration in a race against developers and rising real estate costs.
But some environmental groups fear the aggressive pace will slow and that lands crucial to the restoration will be developed or will become too expensive as land values rise. The agency charged with buying the land, the South Florida Water Management District, has already spent the money budgeted for this fiscal year and faces a $6 million deficit.
The Legislature approved $100 million in bonds last year to buy land for the project but a legal challenge to the bill could tie up the money for two years, creating the budget crunch and a delay that worries those supporting the $8.4 billion restoration project.
"The fact is we are out of money, and we have to scrape and borrow and beg in order to continue working, which is what we are going to do," said Pam Mac'Kie, the district's deputy executive director for land resources.
Mac'Kie said the state might have another $10 million to cover the $6 million deficit and to buy more lands in the next month. After that, she said the district will look at the budget picture month by month.
Environmental groups monitoring the restoration plan to discuss the problem at an annual Everglades Coalition conference that begins todayThursday. Group members say there's little time to figure out a solution.
"If we don't have the money to buy the lands, the lands are either lost to development and restoration options are foreclosed forever, or the land values begin to increase so much that the costs become prohibitive," said April Gromnicki, Everglades policy director for the Florida Audubon Society.
"Basically, if we don't have the money for the lands, the whole plan is in jeopardy."
The state has purchased about 195,000 acres, or 45 percent of the 402,888 acres designated for the restoration project.
Recently, the water management district closed a $29.7 million deal for a 20.6-square-mile section of the Allapattah Ranch in northwestern Martin County.
The large parcel will be one of the first pieces of land used in the restoration project, which Congress approved in December 2000.

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