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Amendment could eliminate wildlife refuge

The measure to suspend a state lease on an Everglades wildlife refuge is supported by the state's sugar industry.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lobbyists for South Florida's powerful sugar industry got a surprise amendment passed Wednesday that would eliminate a national wildlife refuge in the Everglades in 2003 unless the Legislature votes to keep it.

"We may become the first state to exterminate a national wildlife refuge," complained Florida Audubon Society lobbyist Charles Lee.

The land in question is 147,000 acres of marshland in western Palm Beach County called the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Without the official "wildlife refuge" label, the land might be opened up to more activities than are allowed now.

Environmental lobbyists and state officials were stunned at the amendment, which popped up on two bills that passed unanimously out of a House committee Wednesday and now head to the floor of the House of Representatives.

"This is one of the most extreme actions I've seen yet from the sugar industry," said Lee, who has battled with sugar growers for years over Everglades cleanup.

Environmentalists are suspicious of the amendment, since the state and federal governments are starting a massive re-plumbing of the River of Grass that will have huge ramifications for Everglades sugar growers.

"It's hard to figure out what the motive is, and it seems to be antagonistic to our relationship with our federal partner" in the Everglades cleanup, said Allison DeFoor, environmental adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Rep. Josephus Eggelletion Jr., D-Lauderdale Lakes, sponsored the amendment to suspend the state lease of the Loxahatchee wildlife refuge, which is a haven for migrating birds. He tried to distance himself from the sugar industry when reporters questioned him.

First, he said he sponsored the amendment on behalf of "a group of private citizens who like to hunt and fish."

"No, they are not sugar people," he said.

But in a separate interview, U.S. Sugar Corp. vice president Robert Coker acknowledged that he was behind the amendment.

When questioned further, Eggelletion said "two attorneys who represent landowners, some who grow sugar" asked him to file the amendment.

Eggelletion said he sponsored the amendment because he wants to see a state review of the refuge, which he says is poorly managed.

"It's a damn shame how beautiful it used to be and how poor a shape it's in now," he said. "I consider myself an environmental person."

Coker, of U.S. Sugar, said he was "a little surprised at some of the reaction" to the amendment.

"This was not written in a way that was intended to be mean-spirited or punitive," Coker said. "There's no intention to use that property for ulterior motives."

Florida has leased the land for the wildlife refuge to the federal government since 1951. The state is poised to renew the lease for another 30 years, but the amendment passed Wednesday would derail that process. Instead, Florida would spend the next two years reviewing the Loxahatchee refuge's future. The lease would end in 2003 unless the Legislature passed a new law.

"The idea is to get a review of what to do with 140,000 acres of state-owned land," Coker said. "Every other piece of state land that has a lease goes through a public process."

Coker said he would like a public discussion to "see if there's a way to integrate that piece of property into the whole Everglades restoration."

And that's what worries Laurie Macdonald, a St. Petersburg woman who lobbies for Florida Defenders of Wildlife.

"I certainly hope the sugar industry is not wanting to take over the national wildlife refuge as a dumping ground to clean up the mess they made," Macdonald said.

The Loxahatchee refuge is among 27 national wildlife refuges in Florida.

So far, environmentalists haven't seen similar amendments pop up in the Senate. The House amendments are tacked onto two bills that make minor changes to existing environmental programs.

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