The Everglades is not as spectacular as Yellowstone; its subtle and often inhospitable landscape of saw grass marshes and mangrove swamps, ponds and bays was once reviled as a pestilential hellhole. But today, even though agribusiness, development and lousy water management have ravaged it, the Everglades is revered as an ecological treasure--there is nothing like it on earth, and every politician claims to care about it. The Everglades, some say, is a test; if we pass, we may get to keep the planet.
June 24 may have been the day we stopped flunking that test. Governor Charlie Crist announced a stunning deal for Florida to buy the U.S. Sugar Corp., including 187,000 acres of farmland in the northern Everglades that will be used for restoration. Activists who have battled Florida's powerful sugar industry for decades were giddy. Engineers who have struggled to revive the Everglades without disrupting Big Sugar were flabbergasted. "I'm flabbergasted, too," Crist told TIME. He called the $1.75 billion deal as "monumental" as the creation of Yellowstone, and he may be right.
The Everglades is already the focus of the largest ecosystem restoration ever, but that effort has stumbled and stalled. What Crist's deal can do is change the political ecosystem. Sugar fields pollute the Everglades, dump water on it when it's flooded and suck water out of it when it's dry; Big Sugar, opponents say, has used its political dominance in Florida to block efforts to restore the flow of the River of Grass. By essentially bribing U.S. Sugar out of business, Crist not only frees up its land but also eliminates an implacable obstacle to restoration.
A $1.75 billion ecological bid is a bold move during a budget crisis. But if we can't save the Everglades with an abundance of money, science and goodwill behind an effort that's been hailed as a worldwide model, then what can we save? In South Florida, humanity has a unique opportunity to repair its abusive relationship with nature. Crist hasn't proved we can do it, but he's made that proof possible.