Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Preserve or develop? The race against time to protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor. (Jimmy Tobias, WUSF/Florida Trident)

There they go again.  From WUSF:  

Preserve or develop? The race against time to protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor 
Carlton Ward Jr.
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Will the corridor become a reality or will government authorities allow it to be paved over like so many other landscapes in fast-growing Florida?

When Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act into law in the summer of 2021, the occasion was met with a flurry of glowing headlines and general celebration by conservationists across the state. The “sweeping law,” as National Geographic called it, was meant to conserve millions of acres across Florida, connecting open spaces and key habitats to help safeguard the future of imperiled animals like Florida panthers, black bears and more. 

The idea behind the law is simple and science-based: The long-term survival of many Florida species is dependent upon their ability to move across the landscape, unimpeded by development, traffic, and other potentially damaging obstacles. Florida’s protected lands – from Everglades National Park to Osceola National Forest — need to be connected to each other by undeveloped corridors if they are to fulfill their true potential as wildlife habitat. To that end, scientists at the University of Florida identified some 18 million acres of land that are crucial for preventing further fragmentation and degradation of Florida’s wild spaces. The Act’s goal is to conserve those acres through public acquisition programs, conservation easements and other mechanisms. And indeed, with an influx of funding from the state government, the new law has spurred some serious progress. 

“Last year was our best year in quite some time in terms of acres conserved,” says Jason Lauritsen, the chief conservation officer at the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. “Collectively the state conserved some 110,000 acres throughout the corridor.” 

But the effort to protect the integrity of Florida’s landscape is a race against time. Behind the Corridor Act’s sparkling reputation and its real successes lies the limiting reality that it has no regulatory teeth. It remains entirely legal to develop land within much of the corridor’s boundaries, even if such development would destroy the landscape-scale connectivity the law is meant to preserve. The corridor, in other words, remains under siege by development. And the state and federal governments have not been too eager to stop it. 

“Projections suggest we are losing approximately 60,000 acres within the corridor every year,” Lauritsen says. 

Consider Collier and Lee counties in southwest Florida. Controversial real estate projects in both places threaten to bite into the corridor, despite warnings from scientists and conservation groups that they could have severe impacts on animals like the Florida panther. As the developments seek to accommodate tens of thousands of new residents, they bring not just large housing and commercial footprints, but also an influx of traffic that could further fragment the landscape. Projects like the Kingston development in Lee County and Bellmar in Collier County, though not yet fully permitted, raise urgent questions about the future of the fledgling Florida Wildlife Corridor. 

With development threatening to take chunks out of the corridor in the coming years, will the law ultimately meet its objectives? Will the Florida panthers, black bears and other species that inspired the Act’s passage survive and thrive? Will the corridor become a reality or will government authorities allow it to be paved over like so many other landscapes in fast-growing Florida? 

Mallory Lykes Dimmitt
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition


Bob Frakes, a retired 21-year veteran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, strolled along a shaded path in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge one morning in late January. He’d traveled hours from his home near Vero Beach to discuss the future of the Florida panther, the poster child of the years-long campaign to pass the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.

Frakes has been an instrumental, if little-known, figure in the effort to protect the endangered animal. His habitat modeling work, which began during his time in government, helped inform the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, a mapping project from the University of Florida that informed the boundaries of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Since his retirement, he has also collaborated with conservation groups fighting development in Florida panther habitat. As such, the tall gray-haired scientist stands at the intersection of the effort to preserve the corridor and the push for development that threatens the many species that call the corridor home.

“This is really a flex point, a make-or-break moment,” he says of the proposed developments in and around panther habitat and the wildlife corridor. “If these projects can’t be stopped and they all go through, I don’t know what else worse can happen.”

The real estate proposals that concern him include the Bellmar and Kingston projects in Southwest Florida, among numerous others.

The proposed Bellmar project, which sits just north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, has been in the planning and permitting stage for many years. It’s a large residential and commercial development located almost entirely within the boundaries of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. With a 1,793 acre development impact (roughly twice the size of New York’s Central Park) it will bring with it thousands of new homes as well as commercial facilities and will generate tens of thousands of new vehicle trips a day, according to state and federal documents. Already, automobile collisions are the leading cause of death for Florida panthers.

Bellmar is the brainchild of Collier Enterprises, a company long controlled by the wealthy Collier family, which owns large tracts of land in the county that bears its name. In 2022, the company was acquired by Tarpon Blue CE Management, another real estate company. If Collier Enterprises gets its way, Bellmar will be just one of a string of new developments in the county, including the Rural Lands West project, another sprawling residential community that will neighbor Bellmar to the north. Once completed, these projects will effectively create a new town east of Naples. Both projects will set aside a portion of their overall footprints as preservation land.

These developments, says Frakes, will narrow a crucial connective corridor that panthers use to move from Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress to habitat further north. During his January visit to the panther refuge, he pulled out a series of maps he’d designed to help inform the federal and state agencies reviewing Bellmar. They show that Bellmar and Rural Lands West together will impact roughly 5,600 acres of prime panther breeding habitat and will eat into an important north-south connective corridor known as Camp Keias strand.

“Panther recovery requires the cats moving north,” says Frakes. “This further reduces that possibility.”

Two roads running parallel to each other with forests and greenery on either side of them
Carlton Ward Jr.
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Kingston is a similar story. It will have a development impact on more than 3,000 acres in eastern Lee County and will bring with it some 10,000 homes and a large commercial area. All of this is just north of the famed Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an essential redoubt for panthers and other imperiled species in the region. The project will eat up both panther breeding habitat and a portion of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and will result in tens of thousands of additional cars on the road. It will also set aside a portion of its total footprint as preservation land.

Bellmar and Kingston, meanwhile, are only two of the large projects developers envision in southwest Florida. There is also the proposed Immokalee Road Rural Village, located northwest of Bellmar, that will include up to 4,000 homes and slice off another chunk of the wildlife corridor. There is the proposed Troyer Brothers Mine west of Kingston that sits almost entirely atop the Florida Wildlife Corridor. There is the so-called FFD project that could bring a large new residential and commercial build out, also partly in the Wildlife Corridor. Together with Troyer Mine and Kingston, conservationists in Southwest Florida contend FFD could result in the loss of more than 7,000 acres of panther breeding habitat if it comes to fruition in Lee County. The list goes on. And beyond Collier and Lee Counties, development pressures continue apace – for example, the recent decision by state officials to remove protections from a portion of the Split Oak Forest in central Florida to allow construction of a toll road. The affected land lies within the wildlife corridor.

If state and federal authorities approve Bellmar and Kingston, “why would anyone think they would stop any other ones,” says Frakes, as we stand under pine and cabbage palm in the panther refuge. “Why would they stop anything.”

“I think either all the dominoes are going to fall or they are not, real soon.”

Collier Enterprises and Cameratta Companies, the developer of Kingston, declined to comment for this story.

When Florida conservationists were campaigning to pass the Wildlife Corridor Act in the years before 2021, panthers served as a central emblem of their struggle. They are the only pumas still extant east of the Mississippi river. Florida’s state animal, panthers have been the object of a decades-long recovery effort financed by the American public. Given their enduring popularity, panthers helped catalyze interest in the broader corridor project.

“If you walk into a coffee shop in Miami and say who wants to hear about the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a few people might raise their hands,” says Carlton Ward Jr, a wildlife photographer who was a leading figure in the campaign for the corridor. “If you say who wants to hear about the panther, everyone will raise their hands.”

Once the Act passed, the panther’s needs were embedded within the design of the corridor itself.

“Panthers have always been a key foundation of the corridor,” says Tom Hoctor, a professor and GIS expert at the University of Florida who created the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN), a mapping project that has aggregated a wide range of habitat models to identify the most important landscapes and connectivity corridors for Florida wildlife. FEGN used panther habitat data as a key input in its work. FEGN’s mapping work, in turn, served as the basis of the Florida Wildlife Corridor’s official boundaries. The Corridor comprises 18 million acres, from the Everglades to the Florida panhandle. Some 10 million acres are already conserved, including large federally-owned landscapes like Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Corridor supporters hope to protect the remaining 8 million acres in the years ahead.

Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media 

The Wildlife Corridor Act’s ability to fulfill its promise to Florida panthers depends in no small part on development patterns in southwest Florida. Places like Lee and Collier counties are the panther’s only population stronghold. If habitat becomes further degraded in Southwest Florida, and if connective corridors to the north become harder to traverse due to land loss, traffic intensification and the like, panthers will struggle mightily to meet the recovery goals laid out under the Endangered Species Act.

Those goals are crystal clear: For the panther to be removed from the endangered species list, there must be at least three viable self-sustaining panther populations in the state of Florida containing at least 240 individuals each. Right now there is only one viable population, almost entirely confined to the development hotspot of Southwest Florida, and whether it contains even 200 panthers is a matter of debate.

Make a quick stop at the Corkscrew Country Store, a ramshackle shop that sits among slash pines in eastern Lee County, and one gets a sense of the feverish development activity in this region. The store, where patrons lounge on the porch and the owner slings hotdogs and soda, is a holdover from an era when Corkscrew Road was still a dirt track surrounded by pastures, fields and wild land. Now the road is a bustling blacktop and the store is being hemmed in by huge developments on several sides.

To the west, a new residential community is rising out of a former orange grove, dust billowing from the construction crew at work. To the north, a new mine proposal is moving through the permitting process. A little further east, the Kingston development could soon bring its thousands of residents to the area. This place won’t be rural, it won’t be country, much longer. And the proprietor at this country store, a tanned older woman, doesn’t seem particularly pleased.

“I don’t like it,” she says, “but what can you do?”

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act itself has little ability to stop such development if landowners and developers are unwilling to sell their properties or put them into conservation easements. It’s confined to voluntary participation, leaving conservationists to rely on other environmental laws to prevent the imminent large-scale developments here in panther country.

Nicole Johnson, the director of environmental policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, pulls her hulking blue flatbed to the side of a dead-end road, climbs out of the vehicle and peers through shrubs at a vast expanse of agricultural land in eastern Collier County. Cows are lowing nearby and a long strip of cypress rises above the Camp Keais strand in the distance.

Panthers live on this landscape, a designated portion of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Johnson, along with her colleagues Julianne Thomas and Amber Crooks, both passengers on this road trip around Collier County, would like to keep it the way it is. Collier Enterprises has a different vision— these sprawling pastures and farm fields are the proposed site of the Bellmar project.

A Florida panther goes under a highway overpass
Carlton Ward, Jr.

“It is going to change everything,” says Thomas, an environmental planner at the Conservancy. “I mean, when you bring that density of people out into a place like this, everything changes because it goes from being a rural agriculture-focused community to regular suburban sprawl.”

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been a litigious opponent of the development surge in the region. It has opposed Bellmar at every step of the project’s long, tortured attempt to receive regulatory approval, which it has still not quite managed to do. The history of the project’s struggle for approval offers insight into the high-stakes nature of the development surge unfolding in this corner of Florida.

One major obstacle stands in their way: the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA, perhaps the country’s strongest environmental law. In order to build in panther habitat, proposed developments must undergo ESA review and receive the blessing of the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So far, Bellmar has not had a particularly easy time of it.

Throughout the Trump years, Collier Enterprises and other landowners sought permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for a plan that would have enabled them to build out Bellmar, Rural Lands West and a slew of other developments in one fell swoop. To that end, the group of landowners, who called themselves the Eastern Collier Property Owners, or ECPO, hired a law firm in D.C. to help influence decision makers. In a move that churned up controversy, the group paid USFWS hundreds of thousands of dollars to help offset staffing costs during the period when it was reviewing their projects. (You can read more about the details of that controversy here.)

Under the ESA, USFWS has the duty to call “jeopardy” on projects that would appreciably reduce the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of endangered species. If USFWS issues a biological opinion that calls jeopardy on a project, it effectively means the project cannot move forward as designed. This was the outcome ECPO hoped to avoid, but there was a major sticking point. USFWS was concerned with the traffic impacts Bellmar, Rural Lands West and the other ECPO developments would bring into Collier County.

In a draft biological opinion, USFWS estimated that 11 panthers a year would be killed from road traffic associated with ECPO’s multi-development plan, though conservation measures could bring the number down to 8 panthers a year. Some 18,800 acres of panther habitat, meanwhile, would be lost. It appears USFWS was considering calling jeopardy on the ECPO proposal due to its traffic impacts, a very rare move for the agency. In a 2021 letter, the developers revealed that USFWS had informed them they would be required to prevent future panther traffic mortality that the draft biological opinion asserted “would cause jeopardy.” But before the draft was ever finalized, developers all over Florida got a major gift from the departing Trump administration.

Shortly before leaving office, the Trump team gave Florida’s government authority over a federal permitting program that plays a huge role in shaping development decisions in the state. It meant that projects like Bellmar and Kingston could now receive approval through a state agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, while the federal Fish and Wildlife Service was effectively absolved of its responsibility to issue full biological opinions on individual projects that would have previously received such in-depth scrutiny. After this revolution in Florida permitting rules, ECPO withdrew its multi-project application from USFWS. Developers like Collier Enterprises instead sought to gain approval for their projects in piece-meal fashion through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s new permitting process, a potentially easier route to approval.

Mallory Lykes Dimmitt
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Conservationists railed against Trump’s decision to hand key federal permitting authority to Florida. “We found very disturbing ways in which the state’s program and this botched Endangered Species Act scheme were not adequately protecting species as these [development] applications were being reviewed and permitted,” says Amber Crooks of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. In January 2021, her organization and their allies sued in federal court to block the state’s assumption of the federal permitting program.

As the lawsuit made its ponderous way through court, Bellmar and Kingston were two of the early projects in southwest Florida to go through the new state-controlled permitting process. No longer required to issue lengthy biological opinions, USFWS instead issued shorter analyses to help inform state regulators’ decisions on the projects.

USFWS, in internal documents, has acknowledged both projects are controversial. In its analyses of Bellmar, the agency found the project would result in the permanent loss of more than 1,700 acres of panther habitat. The project, USFWS found, could also result in 3 additional panthers being killed by cars each year, which would amount to the loss of a third of the panther population’s approximate growth rate of 9 individuals a year. The agency, however, stated in its review that these deaths would likely be minimized by the requirement that the developers build new wildlife crossings on area roads.

In its analysis of Kingston, USFWS found the project would convert 3,400 acres of panther habitat to commercial and residential development. New traffic associated with the project — some 82,000 external trips per day — could result in the deaths of 16 panthers per year on average, above the endangered population’s annual growth rate. In total, with habitat loss and other factors included, the agency review contemplated harm to as many as 23 panthers during year one of the project build out, and as many as 22 panthers each year thereafter. Again, however, the Service claimed that new wildlife crossings funded by Kingston’s developer, the Cameratta companies, would minimize this significant death toll.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida was a harsh critic of USFWS’s reviews. Rather than normal biological opinions — which can run into the hundreds of pages — the review document for Kingston was 42 pages. Bellmar’s was only 37 pages. “They were less stringent, there was less analysis, less review,” says Crooks. And she was shocked to see the high number of potential panther deaths the documents contemplated. “That is an extremely high number, larger than anything we’ve seen in the past,” she says. Her organization believes USFWS should block both projects by calling jeopardy.

Despite such protests, both Kingston and Bellmar seemed poised for approval as 2024 began. A July 2023 memo sent from USFWS’s regional office to the agency’s director stated USFWS was “comfortable with [Bellmar]” and it ultimately gave its blessing for the project to proceed through FDEP’s permitting process. Kingston’s too was nearing the finish line. On February 23 this year, Joe Cameratta, the owner of the namesake company behind Kingston, told the Fort Myers News-Press he was “hours away from getting my permit.”

But then, in a shocking twist, a federal judge finally issued a ruling on the Conservancy’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s assumption of key federal permitting authority. It was a stunning decision that reverberated across the state: The judge effectively invalidated FDEP’s takeover of the federal permitting program on the grounds it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act. It was a momentous decision that stopped both Bellmar and Kingston in their tracks.

Mark Schreiner

Developers, as well as the state of Florida, were furious. A spokeswoman for FDEP denounced the decision, saying the state’s permitting program had been “brought to an abrupt halt by the stroke of an activist federal judge’s pen in Washington, D.C." Cameratta said the decision “hurts Florida. This judge shut down Florida and a lot of projects."

The state of Florida in April appealed the federal court’s ruling, and has asked for a stay pending the appeal that would allow it to process more than 1,000 permit applications stuck in the review pipeline. For now, Bellmar, Kingston and other projects like them are in limbo and it looks as if USFWS’s Florida offices may have to resume their traditional responsibilities under the ESA once again. That means Kingston, Bellmar and other projects like them could be subject to more stringent endangered species reviews in the months ahead.

“Following the court’s ruling, the State does not have the authority to approve these applications, and the Service is no longer providing technical assistance to the State,” a USFWS spokesperson said in a statement. It declined to comment further on the ongoing litigation, except to say that “the federal parties are currently evaluating the Court’s decision.”

Conservationists are celebrating the outcome, even as Florida’s appeal moves forward in federal court.

“This is a victory not only for listed species, such as the endangered Florida panther, which rely on the Endangered Species Act,” says the Conservancy’s Nicole Johnson, “but it’s a win for all Floridians.”

Back at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Bob Frakes finishes his hike and prepares to head out for a night of camping in panther country. Before leaving he issues his own verdict on Bellmar and Kingston. The former federal scientist believes USFWS has a duty to call jeopardy on both projects. He came to that conclusion based on his understanding of panther habitat needs, its population dynamics and his desire to see the animals survive. Such a decision would also help protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor, atop which the projects wholly or partially sit.

These development projects and the others like them are “death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “You are going to narrow the corridor, you are going to lose habitat, the compensation is inadequate,” he adds, “and all the science says that all remaining panther habitat should be protected.” He does not believe that wildlife crossings and other conservation measures associated with Bellmar and Kingston will be enough to mitigate their impacts on panthers.

Frakes’ view is in line with the Conservancy, numerous other conservationists in Florida, as well as the Miccosukee Tribe, which also opposes Kingston and Bellmar. But this view clashes with that of Christian Spilker, the President of Collier Enterprises.

During a 2020 tour of the sprawling agricultural holdings that will be home to both Bellmar and Rural Lands West, he shared his belief that the agency would not call jeopardy on such individual projects.

“Do the 2,500 hundred homes we are building create jeopardy for panthers?” he said at the time. “There is no one in their right mind that can argue that that jeopardizes ... I am very confident that the Service would never find jeopardy on an individual project.”

Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission

President Biden’s USFWS could soon be obligated to issue decisions on Kingston, Bellmar and other major developments in the region. Whether the agency proves Spilker correct, or backs Frakes’ position, is an open question. In the past USFWS has been loath to call jeopardy on anything in panther habitat. Indeed, the agency confirmed that it has never “issued a biological opinion that concluded that a proposed action was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Florida panther.” Then again, USFWS just announced a major new conservation program in Southwest Florida to protect panthers and other species. Either way, the agency’s actions in the coming months and years will play a momentous role in shaping the future of both the Florida panther and the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The endangered animal and the imperiled landscape are inextricably intertwined and only a strong law like the ESA has the power to stem the coming crush of development in Southwest Florida.

This moment, says Frakes, is “a critical juncture.”

“Either we are going to have habitat for panthers and we are going to protect it,” he says, “or we are not.”

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