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Gore Announces Plan to Save Everglades

Environment: Clinton administration proposes cutting subsidies to Florida sugar cane farmers. Savings would be used to help clean up ecosystem.


MIAMI — In launching one of the most far-reaching environmental initiatives of the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore shared an Everglades tableau with snowy egrets, coots and alligators Monday to endorse a $245-million subsidy reduction on sugar cane to help fund a cleanup of Florida's ailing freshwater ecosystem.

Under the plan, subsidies to Florida sugar growers would be cut by a penny a pound, with the savings used to buy 126,000 acres of farmland, take it out of production and restore a natural flow of water through the southern third of the Florida Peninsula. The subsidy savings would supplement more than $1 billion in additional federal funds designated to pay for what would in effect be a replumbing of a compromised network of rivers and lakes that stretches from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.

"We are dealing with an extremely fragile system that is on the verge of collapse," said Gore, who drew applause from the crowd that turned out for the early morning ceremony in Everglades National Park. "We must pass on to our children a planet as healthy as that left to us."

The administration's seven-year plan to save one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States is as ambitious and comprehensive as any environmental project of recent years, environmentalists say.

For years, scientists have documented the decline of a delicate natural hydraulic system that provides fresh water and makes life possible for more than 5 million residents of southeast Florida.

"This is the turning point," said Nathaniel Reed, a member of Florida's water management board.

The plan to reduce the 18-cent-per-pound subsidy to sugar growers, who use water for irrigation and then pump it back into the Everglades system laden with pollutants, has provoked anger from farmers and other industry workers who make their living from the rich muck in the land south of Lake Okeechobee. About 2,000 people from that area gathered in Miami on Sunday to oppose the administration plan.

"We're going to lose 40,000 jobs in this state," said Bob Buker, a spokesman for U.S. Sugar Corp.

In a 1993 agreement between sugar growers and the state and federal governments, farmers agreed to pay up to $322 million over 20 years to help pay for the cleanup, which it is estimated may cost up to $1 billion. But critics say that is not enough.

Under the Clinton administration plan, funding for Everglades restoration would total $1.5 billion over the next seven years. That money would be used to buy about one-fifth of the land now in sugar production and allow it to revert to marsh. The plan would also create an Everglades Restoration Fund to restore the channelized Kissimmee River to its natural boundaries, continue removal of nonnative species and pay for research of dying coral reefs in Florida Bay, among other projects.

Several Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, a presidential candidate, have supported a $200-million appropriation for the Everglades, but the administration proposal is sure to be hotly debated by a Congress asked to fund it.

Key to its chances of passage is the support of Florida Sens. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Connie Mack, a Republican. Both have long backed price supports for sugar growers, which are estimated to exceed $500 million a year.

Reed believes the administration proposals will be approved.

"Sugar needs to pay its fair share," he said, adding that growers "are the beneficiaries of a public works project and subsidies, and a one-cent tax will not break them."

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