Early in the hush-hush negotiations to buy U.S. Sugar, Gov. Charlie Crist dropped by a fundraiser for the small but powerful Everglades Foundation.

At the ritzy Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, the governor hobnobbed with gossip-page lovebirds Chris Evert and Greg Norman, celebrity magnate Donald Trump and the not-so-famous but even richer Paul Tudor Jones II, a Wall Street wizard and avid tarpon angler who chairs the nonprofit foundation.

Behind the glitter was a more telling measure of the foundation’s clout: Crist’s office put his hosts in the loop on the secret sugar talks well before the February shindig — and before many of his own top administrators.

Audubon, Sierra and many other brand-name environmental groups have sparred with the sugar industry. But the low-profile Everglades Foundation has played the biggest role, and spent the biggest bucks, trying to cut Big Sugar down to size. Led by Jones, prominent activists Mary Barley and Nathaniel Reed and a small group of directors and staff members, the Palmetto Bay-based foundation has never been more influential.

A former director sits as vice chair of the agency in charge of Everglades restoration. The governor fishes with its billionaire chairman. Its galas and grants provide millions of dollars that support a network of other groups’ advocates, attorneys and lobbyists.

And when Crist unveiled the $1.75 billion proposal last month, the foundation supplied the glossy press kits hailing the buyout of its longtime foe as the ”missing link” to Everglades restoration.

”They’re wealthy people. They’re philanthropists. They pick their causes, but they like to win, too,” said Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club’s Florida office.

The foundation isn’t one of those trendy new ”green” groups. For its leaders, trying to save what’s left of the Glades goes back decades.

Barley, named a ”Hero of the Planet” by Time in 1999 for her Everglades efforts, said the foundation’s most important role has been to keep activists’ eyes on the prize.

”We have only one issue,” said Barley, a vice chair who lives in Islamorada. “We are where we are because we brought together everybody who is working on the Everglades.”

Having deep pockets hasn’t hurt, either.

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