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Sprawling new developments obliterate the revival of Florida panthers


One of my favorite Christmas tales is Dr. Seuss’ story of the Grinch. I especially like the animated cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff (not the first name that comes to mind when you think “beloved Christmas figure”). It features a memorable song about his meanness by Thurl Ravenscroft, aka the voice of Tony the Tiger.

For me, it’s just not Christmas until I hear Thurl hurl this insult at the pre-conversion Grinch: “Your soul is an appalling dung heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots!”

I was humming this little holiday ditty recently when I read about a couple of sprawling new developments that are likely to lay waste to some of the things that make Florida special. Talk about developers having a soul that’s an appalling dung heap!

One development is an entire new city called “Kingston,” whose owner wants to build 10,000 homes, a hotel, and other businesses in a section of Lee County that’s supposed to be kept at a low density for groundwater recharge. Hey, it’s just our source of clean drinking water — it’s not like it’s something people really NEED.

The other, known as Bellmar, is one part of a new city, a village that will plop 8,600 new residents on land that’s virtually next door to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Both are all set to proceed except for one thing. They haven’t yet received their federal permits to destroy wetlands.

And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in comments on those permit applications, has highlighted the damage those two developments will have on the population of the Florida panther.

Note that the feds didn’t say, “These developments are a bad idea and should never be built.” That would be too simple. They just estimated that the two of them would result in the deaths of (checks calculator three times, shakes head) up to 25 panthers.

Oh, sorry — a little typo there. It’s not 25 panthers total.

It’s 25 panthers PER YEAR.

In other words, it’s so many that it could wipe out the whole panther population.

“It boggles the mind,” said Julianne Thomas, director of environmental policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We don’t know how they can authorize the deaths of so many panthers.”

Our kind of cougars

Florida’s panthers were on the very first federal endangered species list issued in 1967. There were so few of them left that when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 by Richard Nixon (not the first name that comes to mind when you think “major conservation figure”), some Florida officials claimed they were already extinct.

The World Wildlife Fund didn’t believe it.

That environmental organization hired a legendary Texas hunter named Roy McBride to find out for sure if there were any panthers left. Roy brought his pack of hounds to Florida and turned them loose near Lake Okeechobee. They located one scrawny female panther, and Roy found signs there were a few more, but not many.

In 1981, Florida’s schoolchildren were so taken with pictures of the magnificent panther that they chose it — not the alligator, the manatee, or the dolphin — to be our official state animal. (There were a few write-in votes for monkeys. I think those were from future state legislators.)

Yet the cat’s numbers continued dwindling until, in the early 1990s, there were only 20 or so, many suffering from genetic defects caused by inbreeding.

Panthers would be extinct now but for a band of desperate biologists who decided to try an unprecedented experiment. They dispatched McBride to Texas to catch eight healthy female cougars — the feline kind, not the ones featured in the Florida-set TV sitcom “Cougar Town.”

He then brought them back here, and they were released to refresh the panther gene pool. Boy, did they ever! Now, there are about 200 or so, with roughly eight new kittens born to join the pack every year.

What happened with the panther is the most remarkable comeback story in the 50-year history of the Endangered Species Act. Its success has led to similar experiments to save other species around the world.

So, after all that effort to save our state animal from oblivion, you can see why it’s upsetting to see that a pair of new developments could pretty much wipe them off the map. Hence my singing, “You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch…”

Naming all the Grinches

Who, you may ask, are the Grinch-ly developers so intent on putting a downer epilogue on the inspiring story of Up With Panthers?

One is a politically influential Texas-based company called King Ranch that’s also been a major player in Florida’s sugar, sod, and citrus industries. Its vice president here is a fellow named Mitch Hutchcraft, a former South Florida Water Management District board member who on Linkedin calls himself “an advocate for agriculture, environment, and smart growth.”

Everyone sing it with me now: “You’re a mean one, Mr. Mitch! Your heart is full of unwashed socks.”

On their website, the ranch’s owners boast about how they’re “especially proud of the environmentally conscious ‘best management practices’ farming policies it has implemented throughout its Florida operations. … The tradition of nature stewardship that has distinguished King Ranch from the beginning also infuses King Ranch’s Florida operations.”

All those pretty words went out the window when it came to Kingston.

Kingston, as approved by the Lee County commissioners last year, is a 6,600-acre chunk of messy urban sprawl that lies to the west of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. That’s a preserve on the eastern border of Lee and Collier counties important for flood protection, water recharge, and panthers on the move.

What’s worse is that the developers want to build those 10,000 homes out in a rural area previously used as a citrus grove. You can probably guess how the neighbors feel about it.

When this is built, just imagine how many additional drivers will be clogging the roads there who aren’t there now, and how many are likely to turn our state animal into Flat Stanley.

“The estimate is that they will add 95,000 daily trips,” said Thomas. “That’s a huge amount of traffic on roads that are already pretty deadly for panthers.”

In fact, the feds have estimated that thanks to all those extra drivers, between four and 23 panthers will become roadkill at buildout, and afterward between three and 22 additional panthers per year will be splattered across the asphalt.

King Ranch turned over the actual development of Kingston to a corporation called Cameratta Companies in Estero. I tried to call them but struck out. Perhaps they were all busy sharpening their bulldozer blades for maximum mayhem.

However, earlier this month the Fort Myers News-Press reached CEO Joe Cameratta, who said his company is paying more than $10 million in something called “panther mitigation fees,” which I predict will do little to spare any cat-related carnage.

“We’re doing what’s required of us to protect the panther,” he insisted.

Of course, if you’re building a death trap to kill more than a tenth of the entire panther population every year until there aren’t any more, then you’re probably not doing enough to protect them, are you? No, you’re just a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.

But wait until I tell y’all about the other developer!

To damage or spoil

The verb “mar,” says the dictionary, means “to damage or spoil something good.” So, it’s an appropriate part of the name of the other development, Bellmar.

Bellmar is one piece of a vast development project in Collier County that includes a new town called Big Cypress surrounded by smaller “villages” with such lovely descriptive names as “Smokingrass” and “Bongwater” — er, excuse me, “Rivergrass” and “Longwater.”

The owner of that land was a company called Collier Enterprises. It was a major player in a group of 11 landowners who joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some environmental organizations to come up with a Habitat Conservation Plan aimed at allowing development but also providing sufficient habitat for panthers.

They started working on the plan in 2010 but pulled the plug last year. The problem was traffic. The landowners who planned to attract thousands of new residents with cars and trucks didn’t think they should be held responsible for all the panthers that would be turned into panther pancakes.

Christian Spilker, a senior vice president of Collier Enterprises, was the primary spokesman for the landowners. When I interviewed him in 2018, he insisted that making the developers responsible for what thousands of drivers could do is wrong.

“I don’t control your driving, or your texting and driving, that might have caused you to run over a panther,” he said then, neatly sidestepping the fact that those drivers wouldn’t be there if not for the development.

The Habitat Conservation Plan fell apart because the feds determined that the landowners would be, in fact, responsible for those drivers and would have to put in all kinds of expensive underpasses and other special measures to prevent it.

The landowners backed out and decided to pursue all their projects separately. Bellmar is the first. In the meantime Collier Enterprises has a new owner, a Punta Gorda company called Tarpon Blue. When I looked up the new company, guess who was one of the partners: Spilker.

Spilker took an interesting path to where he is now. According to a podcast interview he gave in 2020, when he was a kid in Ohio his parents gave him a book by the famous French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and it inspired him to study to become a marine biologist. He said he wound up with a master’s in environmental science with wetland ecology.

“From there, I ended up going into consulting,” he said. “Consulting in the private sector for companies that wanted to do preservation or restoration of wetlands, companies that wanted to do species surveys, if they were going to create impacts and the responsible way to do so.”

And in what “responsible way” will Bellmar impact the state animal? Three per year would be “impacted” to death by its drivers, the feds said.

I don’t think Capt. Cousteau would have approved of that. In fact, Mr. Spilker, he might have echoed old Thurl and said you’ve got garlic in your soul.

Stink stank stunk

What the feds failed to mention is that those three dead panthers per year would be happening at the same time drivers in nearby Kingston would be killing between three and 22 panthers a year.

I’m no math whiz, but my calculator tells me that’s a total of six to 25 endangered cats made to go splat every 12 months.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never ever looks at the cumulative impact of development on any endangered species, not even Florida’s official state animal.

And it has steadfastly refused to designate any land as critical habitat that should be preserved at all costs, even when it asked a group of scientists to come up with a map of what needed protecting.

I tried to ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials such as Larry Williams, who runs the South Florida ecological services office in Vero Beach, about all these dead cat calculations. Why, I wondered, were they not trying to stop these two projects? Weren’t the panthers their top priority, as opposed to keeping politically powerful developers happy?

The response to all my questions: We can’t talk about it because it’s under litigation.

It’s under litigation because of what’s happening with their federal permits for destroying wetlands.

In Florida, those federal permits are no longer issued by the federal government. Instead, Gov. Ron “Casey and I Encourage People from Every State to Vote in Iowa!” DeSantis cut a deal with the administration of a certain apricot-faced future fraud defendant to let the state take over issuing them.

As a result, it will be up to our weak-kneed Florida Department of Environmental Protection and its secretary, Shawn Hamilton, to make the decision about approving these permits. Unfortunately, like Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” the DEP just can’t say no.

“In the years since Florida took over wetlands permitting from the federal government, FDEP hasn’t rejected a single permit in order to protect wetlands,” Christina Reichert, senior attorney in the Earthjustice Florida office, told me.

And like the feds who are supposed to be protecting panthers, the DEP has yet to do any cumulative impact studies of the damage being done to the wetlands, she said.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups filed suit two years ago to reverse the permit takeover. They have made their arguments to a judge and are awaiting a decision, according to Elise Bennett of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the parties.

But in the meantime, they sought an injunction to stop the DEP from issuing a permit for either Bellmar or Kingston because of their impact on panthers, she said. No decision has been made yet.

The DEP held a public comment meeting on Bellmar at the Naples Public Library. Instead of quietly asking questions, opponents staged a protest and press conference outside to bring attention to their concerns, including their worry that the state was ramming this through too fast.

As a result, DEP officials agreed to extend the public comment period by all of five days. The opponents cheered like a bunch of Whoville residents seeing the big-hearted Grinch bringing their presents back.

Listen, these citizen-driven opposition efforts are not lost causes. Just this week, Ron Magill and a crowd of other Miamians concerned about the imperiled bonneted bat convinced the Miami-Dade Commission to reject a water park that would destroy bat habitat.

If we can save the bats, surely we can save the panthers from so much fatal flattening. My suggestion to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DEP would be to say yes to the two developments, but ONLY on the condition that the speed limit on all the roads through that area be set at 5 mph tops.

And anyone who so much as bumps a passing panther forfeits their vehicle to the state and has to hand over their driver’s license.

Otherwise, I can think of three words that best describe the situation with these developers who seem so cavalier about the fate of Florida’s state animal. They are as follows, and I quote: “Stink! Stank! Stunk!”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • kmskepton

    I want to know where all of the "christians" are who are supposed to be good stewards of the earth. Oh, that's right. They're busy banning books and drag queens. Jeremiah 2:7 " And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination." Thus sayeth the Lord.

    Friday, December 15, 2023 Report this