FL Breaks Ground on $8B Everglades Restoration

Mon December 22, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Cynthia W. Wright

The first groundbreaking celebrating Everglades restoration was held Oct. 16. Gov. Jeb Bush joined John Outland, Environmental Administrator of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); David Struhs, secretary of the DEP; and environmental advocates from across the state as Florida began the first construction project of the 30-year, $8 billion state-federal partnership to restore the Everglades.  Seven years ahead of schedule, this is one of 68 projects.

“Today is a great day for not only Floridians but all Americans,” said the governor, noting that the project is tens of millions of dollars under budget. “Florida’s commitment to the restoration and protection of this natural treasure remains steadfast.”

Southern Golden Gate Estates, a housing development of 17,000 individual lots, began in the 1960s by Gulf American Land Corporation. After selling a number of lots, dredging miles of canals and constructing nearly 300 mi. (482.8 km) of roads, the company went bankrupt.

The abandoned, flood-prone development is now being converted back to a watery wilderness –– a habitat for the highly endangered Florida panther, eastern indigo snake, bald eagle, red-cockaded woodpecker and an abundance of other wildlife.

“We’re coordinating with the Corps of Engineers through the project implementation report process that will go to Congress.  They will hopefully be appropriating matching funds on this early start,” said Outland.  “The plan to restore water flow through this area is a key component of the comprehensive Everglades restoration.”

The area, 55,247 acres (22,400 ha) some 20 mi. east of Naples along U.S. 41, actually borders Alligator Alley on the north and Tamiami Trail on the south, noted Outland. The state put it on the conservation recreational lands list in 1984.  “We’ve acquired all but about 4,000 acres, most through willing sellers, some through eminent domain on the few homesteads that were there.  We’ll soon have the remaining 4,000,” he said.

The Fakahatchee Strand, a state preserve, lies to the east.  To the west is Belle Mead, another area being acquired by the state for restoration.

“This land has been over-drained, causing too much fresh water to leave the site.  Former wet prairies have seen the encroachment of pines and upland vegetative communities.  This caused problems in the estuaries in the 10,000 islands in Florida Bay –– too much fresh water going into the system,” said Outland.

The $50 million project will provide flood protection and recharge ground water levels for the area north, which is in part of Northern Golden Gate Estates.  That development has been subdivided and has homes.  Crews will erase 25 mi. (40.2 km) of roads that block water flow in Picayune State Forest in western Collier County.

“Primarily, we’re clearing about 47 acres first,” said Tim Keen, project manager of Murphy Construction Company. “We’ll take out all the exotic trees on the east side within a 100 feet of the canal.  On the west side, they want selective clearing, leaving some native pines.”

After the roadways were opened up, Keen’s crews moved the heavy equipment to the site the week before Thanksgiving. 

“We’re utilizing a couple of Caterpillar D8s,” he said. “Beginning with the seven-mile Prairie Canal, workers will be pushing spoil material that was originally dug out for the development back into the canals.  That will restore the original grade so that the water can sheet flow back instead of running straight down through the canals into Florida Bay.”

Murphy rents approximately half of its equipment and leases the other half.  The company currently has five to six men working five to six days a week. 

“It can be difficult at times because we’re in such a remote area,” said Keen.  “The nearest gas station and amenities are 20 miles away.” 

Murphy expects its part to be finished by the end of May 2004.  The Southern Golden Gates Estates project is scheduled for completion no later than fall 2006.”

It’s likely The Murphy Company will be vying in the future for several of the 15 or so contracts on this particular area.

Participation in the restoration includes federal and state agencies; two American Indian tribes; county and municipal governments; industry, commercial and private sector special interest groups, according to the DEP.

Fixing Florida’s ’Worst’ Land Scam

PICAYUNE STRAND STATE FOREST, FL (AP) In the heart of this soggy tangle of cypress trees and scrubby palms, two brothers schemed in the 1960s to build the world’s largest development in a sleepy section of southwest Florida.

Leonard and Julius Rosen and their Gulf American Land Corp. carved up the northwestern corner of the Everglades by draining the swamp into 48 mi. (77.2 km) of canals and adding 290 mi. (466.7 km) of roads.

High-pressure salesmen flew potential buyers over the uninhabitable swampland during the dry season, eventually selling plots to 17,000 people with dreams of sunny retirements and affordable vacations. The inevitable flooding soon led the company to bankruptcy and the promised restaurants and shopping malls that would have completed the Florida paradise never materialized.

The failed real estate venture became known as Florida’s worst land scam and an environmental disaster that irreversibly harmed the fragile Everglades ecosystem.

Decades later, state officials are starting to undo some of the damage with the first project in an $8.4 billion environmental restoration, the most expensive in the nation’s history. Workers are pushing the shell-rock roads back into the canals to revive the leisurely flow of the river of grass, which once stretched without interruption from a chain of lakes near Orlando south to Florida Bay.

“These are roads to nowhere. The whole thing was essentially undevelopable. And now we’re going to turn it back to nature,” said Ernie Barnett, director of ecosystem projects for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The Rosens were not the first to try to develop the Everglades. Settlers in the late 1800s tried to tame the wet wilderness by digging primitive canals to help control flooding. More roads and canals followed, eventually swallowing 2 million acres (809,000 ha) –– half of the original wetlands.

The canals protect nearby homes and farms from flooding but send freshwater needed by the ecosystem to the ocean too quickly. Approximately 1.7 billion gallons of water are lost each day, disrupting feeding and breeding patterns for the most diverse array of plants and animals in North America. Nearly 70 plant and animal species have become threatened or endangered; and the wading bird population has plunged by more than 90 percent.

The restoration aims to capture fresh water flowing to the sea and return it to the Everglades and the many birds, fish, seagrasses and other plants that depend on it. Much of the project will focus on improving the quality of the polluted waters –– both for the ecosystem and the booming South Florida population, which could double to nearly 15 million people by 2050.

The project could take three decades or longer and has already been mired in political struggles for nearly as long. In 1988, the federal government sued Florida for failing to protect the dying ecosystem.

U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler was appointed to oversee a cleanup agreement that came out of the lawsuit, and he juggled the competing interests of governments, the sugar and citrus industries, environmentalists and the Miccosukee Indians who live in the Everglades.

But Hoeveler was kicked off the case in September after sugar growers complained he favored environmental groups. Four months earlier, Hoeveler had publicly criticized Gov. Jeb Bush over a new law that puts off the cleanup of phosphorus pollution –– which kills the algae at the base of the Everglades food chain.

Members of Congress and environmental groups joined the judge in lambasting the 10-year delay, pushed largely by sugar lobbyists. Sugar growers, who are widely blamed for much of the pollution in the Everglades, argued that meeting the original deadline would take longer than they previously believed.

Bush has dismissed criticism about the delay and said the cleanup will be more than 95-percent complete by the original deadline of 2006. At a ceremony marking the start of the Picayune Forest project, he touted the project “as the largest environmental restoration in the history of the world.”

He also was quick to praise the state’s partnership with the federal government, which will pay for half the project, and the help of his brother, President George W. Bush, who faces re-election next year.

Environmentalists say any setbacks over the past year have been tempered by what many said they thought would never happen –– construction crews at work erasing the damage of decades-old development.

“We had a very difficult year for the Everglades and we’ve been anxious to see the restoration start,” said April Gromnicki, the Everglades policy director of the Florida Audubon Society. “Steps like this to move the restoration forward are only going to help ease skepticism.”

The project at the abandoned Southern Golden Gate Estates development also could help the state and federal taxpayers footing the bill understand what is considered the most complicated restoration in the world.

“This isn’t rocket science. They dug a canal and they’re going to fill it back in,” Gromnicki said.

While the beginning phase of the project has met mostly praise, state officials will have to contend with Miccosukee Indians, who live in the Everglades, as it moves forward.

The tribe refuses to give up a piece of land it owns in the Picayune Forest area because it is their only land with the habitat needed to make some herbal medicines and native thatched dwellings called “chickees,” said Dione Carroll, general counsel for the Miccosukee Tribe.

As a compromise, the tribe has offered the land to the federal government to be held in a trust, where the tribe would still have access to it.

Carroll said the tribe is skeptical of the state’s plan because, as many critics have contended, it can sacrifice one area of the Everglades for another. She said state officials had recently sent too much water to one area, flooding tree islands needed by deer.

“The tribe has long been a defender of the Everglades and we’ll continue to support legitimate restoration projects,” Carroll said. “But it’s clear that everything that’s called a restoration effort is not a restoration effort.”

In Golden Gate Estates, the network of roads and canals has pushed the water table down by as much as 4 ft., allowing foreign Brazilian pepper trees and other exotic plants to invade the Cypress-dotted plains.

The changes have caused an increase in wildfires, shot damaging loads of fresh water into coastal estuaries and threatened nearby drinking-water wellfields for Collier County with saltwater.

Once rehabilitated, the area will join Picayune Strand State Forest and link four valuable reserves that surround it: the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Collier Seminole State Park.

“People have been reading about Everglades Restoration for years and they don’t see the design and the engineering and the land acquisition,” said Florida Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs. “This is the first opportunity people can see meaningful benefits in their lifetime in their particular communities.”