Miami-Dade County

Big Sugar ad touting role in preserving Everglades irks environmentalists

A Big Sugar ad campaign has struck a sour note with environmentalists.

In fliers mailed to thousands of South Florida homes and in a television spot, the sugar industry touts legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott in May — which extends a $25-an-acre tax on cane fields to help pay for an $880 million expansion of projects to reduce the flow of farm pollution flowing in the Everglades — as a “historic partnership” with environmentalists and the state that will “put the final phase of restoration into place.”

The ad boasts that “smart farming techniques" have helped preserve the Everglades and proclaims farmers the “largest private funders of Everglades restoration” with some $400 million invested in the effort to date.

The state’s three largest growers — Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative — bankrolled the ad targeting key communities and residents in South Florida, said Brian Hughes, president of Tallahassee-based Meteoric Media Strategies, which created the ad. He wouldn’t discuss the cost or say how many people will get fliers, but called it a “modest” campaign.

“It’s not uncommon for coalitions and businesses to reach out in whatever media form to make sure people understand the facts,’’ said Hughes. “The sugar farmers are proud of the work they have put in to be part of the solution.’’

But two environmental leaders quoted in the flier supporting the legislation — Eric Draper of Florida Audubon and Eric Eikenberg of the Everglades Foundation — aren’t exactly on board with its message.

Both groups caught some flak during the legislative session from other activists who wanted the industry to pay more of the massive clean-up costs. The state has already spend some $1.2 billion constructing sprawling pollution-scrubbing artificial marshes that have not yet met strict water-quality standards for the Everglades.

Under pressure from federal judges overseeing two long-running environmental lawsuits, Scott championed an expanded clean-up plan expected to take several decades to construct. The law, aimed at raising $32 million a year, adds 10 years to a $25-per-acre tax that Everglades sugar growers pay, extending it to 2026. After that, the tax declines to $20 and then, in 2036, to $10 per acre.

Draper said the flier tells only “half of the story.”

The industry has significantly reduced its use of the damaging nutrient phosphorus, which harms native vegetation, but environmentalists contend farms should do more to reduce the volume of pollution that wash off fields after storms into South Florida’s canal system. They also argue that South Florida taxpayers, not the industry, have been stuck with the bulk of the clean-up costs through property taxes that support the South Florida Water Management District, which is managing the clean-up.

Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, also said the bill addresses only one part of restoration efforts — water quality — and is far from the “final phase.”

There are billions of dollars of pending projects and decades of work ahead to boost the water supply and restore the natural flow to the River of Grass. That starts with a critical project for the Central Everglades that needs support from water managers to secure federal funding but has been questioned by the industry. Water managers face a key vote on the $2.2 billion suite of projects next week.

“To put out a flier and say we are in the final stage of restoration is disingenuous and it’s a typical tactic that the sugar industry plays,’’ Eikenberg said.