The US Fish and Wildlife Service is now taking comments on a 50-year development plan proposed by major landowners in eastern Collier County. The plan, ironically called a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), would authorize 45,000 acres of intense mining and development in the endangered Florida panther’s last remaining core habitat area. It would facilitate development that would bring 300,000 additional residents into this rural region.
Even as the federal agency acknowledges the significance of this proposal, they have refused to host a public hearing. Are they afraid that they would again have a standing-room-only crowd of concerned citizens rejecting the HCP, as they did in 2016? Are they trying to avoid having to answer questions about why their flawed analysis claims the HCP is somehow better for the environment? Or why they decided not to consider a science-based alternative by the Panther Review Team? Is it because some of the landowners might not get all of the new towns they want, even as they acknowledge impacts to panthers would be reduced?
The impacts are not only to protected species, but they also impact taxpayers. The landowners deny any responsibility for the building or mitigating for the 200 miles of new and expanded roadways that their developments will necessitate. Therefore, these costs, estimated conservatively at $7.8 billion, will be the obligation of the State and the County – in other words, the taxpayers. Furthermore, the HCP doesn’t address panther road kills from the added one million vehicle trips a day to these roads.
The next proposed new town, Rural Lands West, is included in the HCP.
I had the opportunity to visit the development site. We toured for hours and only saw a fraction of the future town. It will be massive: 2 miles wide by 6 miles long and up to 10,000 homes. The Camp Keais Strand wetlands are throughout the footprint. No wonder this land has almost every southwest Florida protected species documented here. No wonder the best available science considers it essential habitat for the survival of the Florida panther.
Dr. Robert Frakes, author of the newest panther habitat study, has modeled the impacts of the proposed HCP on panther habitat, particularly corridors like the Camp Keais Strand. He found that the HCP will fragment and sever these connections.
The HCP will further imperil our wildlife, water, and landscapes. How much more can our wildlife and our environment take?
The HCP will add intensive development the size of Washington D.C. and further carves away at the Western Everglades. Is this the future we have envisioned for Collier County? The Conservancy has invested countless hours advocating for a more responsible development footprint and a more constrained HCP that would have minimized the extensive negative impacts to endangered species, but all of our comments have fallen on deaf ears within the permitting agencies.
If approved, our fate will be sealed. Once authorized, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to fix. The Eastern Collier HCP is a bad deal for the panther and 18 other species – as well as for the people of Southwest Florida. The Eastern Collier HCP permits must be denied.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring said it best: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one ‘less traveled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. The choice, after all, is ours to make.”
Please help make the best choice for Collier County. For suggested comments and how to weigh in before the December 3 deadline, visit www.conservancy.org.
Amber Crooks is the environmental policy manager for Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
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