The Big Cypress Deal

The cover story is conservation, but the Bush boys have their hands in the taxpayers' pockets again

Two days after the assessment was made public, Interior Secretary Norton announced that DOI intended to acquire the mineral rights at Big Cypress and another roughly 49,000 acres that compose Ten Thousand Island Refuge and the Florida Panther Refuge. Twenty weeks later, on May 29, both Bush administrations claimed it as a stunning victory for the Everglades. According to a DOI document, the purchase will be made either in cash or "with $120 million in congressionally approved credits that the Collier family can use towards bids or royalty payments on offshore leases in the Outer Continental Shelf." The credits would be transferable to third parties. (DOI denied a New Times request in August for a copy of the appraisal report used in setting the price, saying it contained "proprietary information.")

The arrangement also gives the Colliers IRS tax breaks if they can prove the value exceeds $120 million. In essence, the Colliers will donate the excess value to the government, then write it off as a charitable contribution. Collier Resources' Duncan explains: "We're looking at third parties who are experienced in these matters who can do an appraisal for us. We'll be dealing with the IRS at some point; if there is going to be a review, our job would be to convince [the IRS] of the value."

Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., is a skeptic of this nebulous tax proviso. "It stinks to high heaven," he says. "The real way they're going to make money on this is the tax writeoff every year. They opened a loophole there that they could drive a semitrailer truck through. And tax returns aren't publicly available. There's really no way the public will know what they get in the end."

Illustration By Brian Stauffer
Illustration By Brian Stauffer

Even those who support a buyout have reservations. "The Colliers didn't want to drill, but they were going through the motions and aggressively shopping their proposal around to all the environmental groups and the administration," Guggenheim says. "We could have done better."

"I don't think it's nearly worth what the Colliers are saying it's worth," says Brian Scherf, acting executive director of the Florida Biodiversity Project. "I think they got a pretty good deal out of the Bush administration. A lot of it was generated politically, because it makes Jeb look green."

Perhaps the most expensive legacy of the Collier deal, however, will be the price precedent it sets. "We're trying to buy all these other properties down there," the DOI source explains. "So the numbers have got to be something that's realistic, because if you pay one person way too much, then everybody else goes to court to get the same thing. We're trying to negotiate a 108,000-acre purchase of mineral rights [in the Everglades]. We already own the surface rights, but we have to buy all those mineral rights. Meanwhile the Interior Department has turned around and said, 'Oh, the Colliers? We're going to give them all this money.' If they make it worth that much money, then it means in the Everglades, we have to pay all these different owners big money."

A major oil company that owns mineral rights to about 30,000 acres near Big Cypress is already planning to ask DOI for a Collier-like buyout, according to the Interior source. "People are sitting back and watching this," he warns.

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