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Southwest Florida subdivisions are poised to clog the Florida Wildlife Corridor

A panther mom and her three kittens walking within the Florida Wildlife Corridor
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A panther mom and her three kittens walking within the Florida Wildlife Corridor

When the wildlife corridor was envisioned, subdivisions with 10,000 houses and hundreds of thousands of feet of office space were not planned.

The Town of Big Cypress with its three villages, and another large subdivision named Kingston, when built in the Western Everglades will add thousands of homes to ease the housing shortage in Florida and create thousands of jobs to stoke the regional economy.

That's what their developers say.

Environmentalists have a different take.

They say that the residential developments will also ruin crucial wetland ecosystems, create miles of new roads, and add thousands of car trips in the region increasing the number of highly endangered Florida panthers hit and killed by cars.

Big Cypress and Kingston are planned for land within the ever-expanding Florida Wildlife Corridor, which is nearly 18 million acres of patchworked ecosystems, including state parks, national forests, and wildlife management areas from the Everglades on the south to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to the north.

Wildlife there are supposed to have it easy.

The wildlife corridor was initially designed so species of all types would have a pathway through the pavement where car strikes and run-ins with people were supposed to be minimal.

Coming out of the quiet wilderness to encounter subdivisions containing thousands of homes — and even more people living and working among the hundreds of thousands of feet of office space , parks, and schools — is not what corridor supporters envisioned for the Florida panther — or any other creature.

Bayles, Tom

The future existence of the sprawling subdivisions has mobilized Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, and hundreds of residents in opposition.

They don't want to see most types of development close to the heart of the Everglades — where there are ongoing projects costing billions of dollars repairing previous efforts at development close to the heart of the Everglades.

The groups and their supporters have held protests in Naples and LeHigh Acres at meetings of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, an agency that received permission to make decisions normally reserved for federal environmental agencies such as whether to allow subdivisions and other buildings in areas of the Sunshine State where flora and fauna on the federal Endangered Species List live in, and rely on.

The protests against the Town of Big Cypress and the three villages that it encompasses, including Longview, Rivergrass, and Bellmar, in eastern Collier County was held in December in Naples.

Even the FDEP representatives present did not look comfortable with the decisions they were being asked to make. They postponed everything for several days.

"This is part of the new wildlife corridor — nothing should be built there. Bellmar and its sister developments will add hundreds of miles of deadly roads for panthers to navigate," wrote Patricia Forkan from Naples in a letter of opposition previously filed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “The continued existence of the Florida panther is at stake. How can anyone go through with their project and still look Florida’s children in the eyes?”

“This ruling sends a clear signal that Congress meant what it said when it passed the Endangered Species Act"
Christina Reichert, an attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups opposing the state's decision-making on the final permits

Nearly the same thing happened two months later in Lehigh Acres when the FDEP held an event to discuss Kingston and its 10,000-home subdivision in eastern Lee County.

Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and the others showed up with a crowd opposed to building in the wildlife corridor, in panther country there, too.

“How can we have goals of recovery when we're destroying the core habitat of the panther?" asked Patty Whitehead of the Responsible Growth Management Coalition of Southwest Florida. "And if you take it away, we won't have any panthers. There won't be any panthers to move north. I don't understand the logic of these agencies.”

Florida's Wildlife Corridor/Special report

Dig deeper into the story

Late last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers are just a few of the federal agencies that got caught up in the scrum.
State and federal lawsuits were are playing out in the courts, too.

Nearing the final days to decide, Judge Randolph D. Moss of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that the FDEP did not have powers under the Endangered Species Act, a decision in favor of the environmental groups who filed the lawsuits claiming that very thing,

The judge's decision halted the start of construction of the Town of Big Cypress and Kingston — as well as hundreds of schools, homes, and businesses caught up in the collateral damage.

“This ruling sends a clear signal that Congress meant what it said when it passed the Endangered Species Act,” said Christina Reichert, an attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups opposing the permits. “No state can be allowed to take over a federal program as important as the Clean Water Act wetlands permitting program by making an end run around the Endangered Species Act.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is appealing.

A work in progress

The Florida Wildlife Corridor movement began in 2010 when a group of conservationists and scientists led by Carlton Ward, Jr., the famed National Geographic photographer, trekked the pathway to bring publicity to the effort. It worked.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made the wildlife corridor official in 2021, and since then state taxpayers have invested heavily in land to link the disparate portions of the corridor together.

Sometimes that means buying thousands of acres from a willing major landowner outright; other times it means a less expensive purchase of the owner's "conservation easements."

That means taxpayers buy the development rights to a property so the land can never be sold for a subdivision, but a farming family can still work the land as long as they allows wildlife to roam relatively freely.

The hundreds of millions of dollars Florida's taxpayers have spent to buy land was largely to help the Florida panther, the state animal on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss. Being able to roam freely from the Everglades to Georgia, the panther has regained a lot of habitat.

If a panther stays within the boundaries of the wildlife corridor it is far less likely the endangered species will be hit by a car, and far more likely the animal can find food, find a mate, and make baby panthers to increase the number of the species.

But the Florida Wildlife Corridor is not set. Its patchwork shape changes with every land purchase.

Problems arise since the wildlife corridor’s boundaries are merely a guide for future land purchases; any lines on a map showing the corridor are for informational purposes only.

If a particular part of the corridor is not also within a protected federal, state, or local preserve it is probably not immune from development.

Babcock Ranch

One of the most significant conflicts between a subdivision and the Florida Wildlife Corridor was in the early 2000s with the proposed development of the Babcock Ranch in Southwest Florida.

The ranch, a large-scale residential and commercial development not too different from Big Cypress in Collier County and Kingston in Lee County, was to be built on a vast tract that encompassed critical wildlife habitat and natural ecosystems within the corridor.

Babcock sparked widespread concern among environmentalists, environmental groups, and local residents due to its potential impacts on wildlife habitat, water resources, and the overall ecological integrity of the region.

The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Florida actively opposed the project and advocated for alternative land use options that prioritized conservation and sustainable development practices.

After years of contentious debate and legal battles, a landmark conservation agreement was reached in 2006. The Babcock Ranch agreement involved a partnership between environmental groups, government agencies, and private landowners to preserve a significant portion of the ranch property as a conservation easement and wildlife corridor.

The compromise ensured the protection of critical habitat for endangered species while allowing for limited, but enough, development in designated areas.

Today, the Babcock Ranch conservation agreement serves as a model for balancing economic growth with environmental conservation and underscores the value of preserving natural landscapes for future generations.

It was a significant victory for conservation efforts in Florida. It proved that collaboration and problem-solving between environmentalists and developers could result in suitable outcomes for everyone within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Town of Big Cypress

The Town of Big Cypress includes commercial space, employment centers, and retail opportunities on a scale that can accommodate major employers in various industries – leading to an estimated 6,000 jobs, according to Collier Enterprises.

The three villages within the town — Rivergrass, Longwater, and Bellmar — are expected to have about 8,350 homes and 11,000 residents. The developer also touts that residents will not have to drive to Naples to get what they need with parks, schools, and retail stores throughout the town and the villages.

Town of Big Cypress
Collier Enterprises
Town of Big Cypress

Rivergrass will have up to 2,500 single-family and multifamily homes, health and wellness facilities, interconnected walkways, an 18-hole golf course, and acres of green space and parks throughout the community.

Collier Enterprises

Longwater is expected to have 2,600 homes with 260 acres of lakes. Various housing types will allow for better affordability, and the village center will contain shops, office space, and rooms for community events.

Collier Enterprises

Bellmar will include up to 2,750 residences at the eastern end of Golden Gate Boulevard, a mix of single-family homes, townhomes, and villas, “an easy stroll or bike ride to the mixed-use Village Center and an elementary school,” Collier Enterprises advertises.

Collier Enterprises

The developers also tout that Rivergrass, Longwater, and Bellmar will preserve 10,000 acres of land for Collier County.

Many hundreds of people have written letters in opposition to the Bellmar Village portion of the town as it was most recently up for its final permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The permit would allow for wetlands to be destroyed while building the subdivisions.

“Please stop the Bellmar project to save our panthers and their fragile ecosystem,” Peter Schmidt wrote in an opposition letter to the DEP. “When is it enough? Please stop this from happening and creating another Miami.”

Paula Halpula is a retired federal biologist who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 25 years, mostly in the endangered species program in South Florida, wrote a scathing letter of opposition to the DEP’s conclusions.

Halpula said the DEP was lax in its research and relied on the developer’s description of Big Cypress, which she said underplayed the size, scope, and impacts of the town and its villages.

“The proposed project is a large master-plan, mixed-use community that will result in the destruction of wetlands, the loss and fragmentation of habitats for imperiled species . . . the reduction of vital wildlife, and the displacement of wildlife,” Halupa wrote to the directors of several state and federal environmental agencies.

“In short, the Bellmar project would not only destroy thousands of acres of essential habitat, but it would also diminish the value of essential habitat adjacent to the project site, narrow a key corridor, and make habitat to the north more difficult for panthers to access.”

Big Cypress is also controversial because it will be one of the largest additions to eastern Collier County since Golden Gate Estates, which Big Cypress will border.

The villages will be some of the furthest inland since Ave Maria, which has a multi-neighborhood concept like Big Cypress. Supporters have included chambers of commerce, builder’s associations, and even some environmental groups.

The opponents of Big Cypress are more numerous and more vocal. They include heavyweights such as Earthjustice and the Center for Biologic Diversity, replete with strong track records of opposition to building in sensitive areas like the nearly pristine wetlands in the Western Everglades. And they have lawyers.

Elise Bennett
Elise Bennett

“Bellmar will drive a spike of urban sprawl into the still beating heart of wild Florida,” Elise Bennett, the Florida director and lead attorney of the Center for Biological Diversity, said during a December protest of the development at the Naples Library. “The remaining network of wild and rural lands here in Southwest Florida is the lifeblood of the one and only population of Florida Panthers.”


Kingston is a massive development that would cover more than 6,600 acres, including 3,330 acres of panther habitat, on what used to be the Corkscrew Plantation Orange Grove.

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Bayles, Tom

About 10,000 homes would be built with more than 25,800 residents joining the Corkscrew Road area.

Once built out, Kingston would create 95,000 more vehicle trips per day.

When the owners of the old Corkscrew Plantation Orange Grove sought bankruptcy protection in 2011, they were going to switch to rock mining.

Limestone is abundant in Southwest Florida and is used in construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. Limestone mining typically involves blasting, drilling, and crushing operations to extract and process the rock into various sizes for different applications.

Rock mining is loud, especially during blasting and crushing activities, and can really annoy the neighbors.

When the owners asked Lee County to allow them to switch to rock mining, they got a negative. They asked again: “No.”

So today the region is prepped for Kingston, which in addition to the 10,000 homes developers plan 240 hotel rooms and a large commercial area.

Kingston’s developer, Cameratta Companies, is known for its residential and commercial projects in Southwest Florida. The company is promising to restore some 3,200 acres of critical environmental land.

“The Kingston Project represents a significant milestone in Lee County's development landscape, balancing economic growth with environmental preservation and community well-being,” the developer wrote on its website. “As progress unfolds, stakeholders eagerly anticipate the realization of this ambitious vision for the region's future.”

Not all stakeholders.

“Kingston represents a big threat to our sustainability,” said Brad Cornell of Audubon Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary just across the street. “Their houses are way too close to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Kingston has to back off at least a mile.”

Cornell, who negotiates policy issues in Southwest Florida for both Audubon Florida and Audubon of the Western Everglades, said Audubon spent millions of dollars fixing the hydrological damage from the previously-there Corkscrew Plantation Orange Grove.

“How can we have goals of recovery when we're destroying the core habitat of the panther? And if you take it away, we won't have any panthers. There won't be any panthers to move north."
Patty Whitehead of the Responsible Growth Management Coalition of Southwest Florida

“We don’t want the Kingston project to continue any of that damage or make different impacts on Corkscrew Swamp.”

Cornell said in addition to moving its residences a mile away, the State of Florida then needs to move in and restore the wetlands between to create a proper buffer.

Audubon has had several rounds of negotiations with Kingston representatives during the last few years, Cornell said, which have gone nowhere.

“To be clear, we believe that the Kingston project can be fixed,” he said. “We’ve told them ways they can make this project more compatible with panther habitat, but Kingston stopped talking to us.

“Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is one of the more ‘panthery’ places in Florida and we want to keep it that way,” Cornell said. “But many environmental groups say the Kingston project could be the finish of the Florida panther.”

Wetlands are wastelands?

The kick-up over major new building in Southwest Florida’s Everglades, and the fight against it, may not have been this fierce since the Everglades Jetport, also known as the Big Cypress Swamp Jetport, was proposed in 1968.

Supporters thought an airport five times the size of New York's JFK and capable of handling supersonic airliners was needed due to a population boom in the region. Environmentalists found the damage it would do to the Everglades abhorrent and unnecessary.

One runway was completed for the airport before environmental interests won out.

But this time, the character of the Florida Wildlife Corridor in two major counties in Southwest Florida is at risk of being force-changed to suburbia at the same time the beloved Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Western Everglades, and the state animal would be put at grave risk.

“Pretty much ever since white people came to the Everglades, chasing Native Americans around the swamp, they've seen South Florida as this hideous wasteland that ought to be drained,” said Michael Grunwald, author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise" that takes a deep look into the people who shaped the River of Grass into the dysfunctional system it is today. “And, for a long time in our history, wetlands were seen as wastelands.”

Grunwald’s “The Swamp” has settled second behind Marjory Stoneman Dougles’ “The Everglades: River of Grass” as a resource that captured South Florida as it used to be and the environmental struggles playing out today.

“We've been taking places like Big Cypress, the Everglades, Corkscrew Swamp, and we've been draining them to try to convert them into agriculture and communities for human use,” Grunwald said. “And when you look at the big picture, we've done a pretty good job of it.”

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Tom Bayles