Cypress trees. Cypress trees in the Everglades. Photo: National Park ServiceThe New York Times published a monster investigative piece Monday on the disaster that is the Everglades Restoration Project. In some ways, it distills much of what’s wrong with both corporate and government culture in this country. Fun fact: the key beneficiary of the restoration plan will not be the Everglades, any of your favorite charismatic mega-faunae that live therein, nor certainly Floridians.

The big winner in the deal will be American oligopolist extraordinaire U.S. Sugar. The deal as originally proposed would have bought out U.S. Sugar’s land in the Everglades to the tune of $1.75 billion. The recession has seen the deal downsized but still involves handing over $536 million to the company for land at inflated prices — especially handy given that the recipient is on the verge of bankruptcy.

This shouldn’t be surprising. As the NYT observes:

United States Sugar dictated many of the terms of the deal as state officials repeatedly made decisions against the immediate needs of the Everglades and the interests of taxpayers, an examination of thousands of state e-mail messages and records and more than 60 interviews showed.

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” … I won’t lie to you — it’s a damn good price for that land,” said the [U.S. Sugar] executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement. “But it’s not as good a deal for the Everglades. If the district doesn’t have any money after this purchase, then they won’t be able to do any restoration projects. It could be a disaster in the making.”

I don’t know if it’s possible to connect this particular deal with the unique position the sugar industry holds in the U.S. It’s pretty much the only industry that still enjoys stifling protectionist policies that keep domestic prices high. And while, as Marion Nestle points out, they’re not high enough to dampen sugar consumption, they were high enough to contribute mightily to the wholesale takeover back in the ’80s and ’90s of processed food sweetening by high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, I think this is more about what happens when you combine consolidation, industrial agriculture, and a government utterly captured by corporate interests, blend and serve.

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Anyway, the whole sad affair is worth some attention. I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this report other than U.S. corporations continue to extract billions from taxpayers as easily as taking candy from a baby. In the end, Florida’s Republican governor Charlie Crist seems to have been only too happy to have chucked over a bipartisan, more cost-effective plan in favor of a sweetheart deal that appears to be completely divorced from any sense of public good.

In a word: Ugh.