MIAMI (AP) _ The goal could hardly be more noble: Rescuing the magnificent Everglades from decades of agricultural pollution.

But it's become a pitched battle on Florida because the proposed remedy would charge sugar farmers almost half the cost of a 25-year restoration.

Floridians will vote Nov. 5 whether to impose a penny tax on every pound of sugar harvested near the Everglades to raise $900 million over 25 years.

The rest of the estimated $2 billion needed to restore the fabled ``river of grass,'' which shelters species found nowhere else on Earth, would come from taxpayers, in formulas still to be determined.

Environmentalists say the Everglades' ill health largely results from farm runoff, which pumps the 2 million acres of delicate marshland full of phosphorus from fertilizers.

``They're using our natural ecosystem as their sewer system,'' said Mary Barley, who leads Save Our Everglades, a conservation group that gathered almost 500,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. ``It's time for them to pay their fair share.''

The sugar growers near Lake Okeechobee, who produce almost 2 million tons of sugar a year, argue they're already paying their share under the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which requires them to kick in about $300 million over 20 years. The proposed new tax would be on top of that.

Farmers say any additional tax would ruin them, costing tens of thousands of jobs involved directly and indirectly in producing sugar and wipe out many smalltime growers whose per-pound profit is only one or two cents.

``You can't imagine the frayed nerves around here,'' said Sandy Stitt, whose husband, John, runs the 1,600-acre Stitt Ranch in the middle of sugar cane country about 100 miles northwest of Miami.

``I feel like I have a big finger mashing up against my chest saying `You Pay,''' she said. ``I'm scared to death.''

Much of the $18 million raised to fight the tax has come from three major players in the sugar industry: U.S. Sugar Corp., the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative and Flo-Sun Inc., a coalition of smaller, independent growers.

On the other side, Save Our Everglades has raised $10 million. Of that, $8.4 million has come from one backer _ Wall Street commodities trader Paul Tudor Jones II, who lives in Connecticut and owns a vacation home in the Florida Keys.

Tax opponents run TV images of clinking champagne glasses and contend the tax will only enrich environmentalists and politicians.

Some Save Our Everglades' ads claim that growers enriched by government price supports can easily afford the penny tax. Others feature fishermen whose livelihood depends on a clean Everglades and a steady stream of tourists.

The lifeblood of the Everglades is a shallow sheet of water that slowly flows 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay at the southern tip of mainland Florida. Dense sawgrass gives it the appearance of a vast, water-logged field.

Hidden among the sawgrass and the pine and mangrove forests are 600 animal species, more than 250 bird species and 900 plant varieties. The rare Florida panther and American crocodile call the Everglades home, as do orchids found nowhere else.

Development first reached into the wilderness a century ago when farmers began tilling the fertile muck created by eons of rotting vegetation. Only half of the original 4 million acres remains.

In addition to farming, federal agencies built a network of flood-control canals. But manipulation of the ebbs and flows has left some areas too dry, others too wet. And South Florida's urban growth is encroaching on the Everglades.

The phosporus and other farm fertilizer nutrients overload nature's delicate balance.

Cattails thrive on phosphorus and can quickly choke out acres of sawgrass, crowding the water so thickly that too little remains for animals and other plants.

The Everglades Forever Act mandated a 25 percent reduction in phosphorus. Levels have dropped, although scientists warn the reversal could be temporary.

Sugar growers insist the Everglades is on the mend.

But even the best-intentioned efforts can't return the Everglades to its former majesty, laments Freddy Fisikelli, a 67-year-old Miami native who has lived next to the wetland all his life.

``The main thing is there's not enough land. We're trying to save what little's left of it,'' he said. ``If we do away with it, I don't know what's going to happen to South Florida.''