Developers back out of Florida panther protection proposal

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August is usually the worst month to be in Florida. We’re wilting from the heat and humidity and watching the National Weather Service bulletins because it’s peak hurricane season.

Fortunately, there’s one event this month that highlights what a wonderful place this is. I am referring, of course, to the Wausau Possum Festival in the Panhandle.

Wausau celebrates the possum for saving everyone during the Great Depression, when they had no money to buy food. This is commemorated not only by the festival but also by a monument dedicated to the noble marsupial.

While I am heartened by the way Wausau celebrates its possums, I wish we treated our panthers with a similar amount of respect. They’re our state animal, for heaven’s sake.

Yet too often they’ve been regarded as nothing but hungry intruders, four-legged speed bumps, and impediments to “progress.”

Something darkly momentous happened last week involving panthers. I know it was a big deal, because more than one person contacted me to say, “Hey, did you hear about this?”

Here was the Fort Myers News-Press headline that attracted all the attention: “Developers drop out of conservation plan to protect panther habitat in Collier County.”

Developers bail out on protecting Florida panthers? What a shock! Do you need a minute to sit down? I paused long enough to sip some sweet tea, then dug into the details — which are, in a word, fascinating.

A consortium of a dozen major landowners in Collier County (which has a history of corruption) had been working with some environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on something unusual. It was supposed to be a way to ensure panthers wouldn’t lose out when the big machines started tearing up their habitat.

As the story reported, “The Habitat Conservation Plan, known as HCP, would have clustered development on 45,000 acres around Immokalee, while preserving 107,000 acres of prime panther habitat.”

The three groups started working on this in early 2010. That’s 12 years ago, which means the negotiations have been going on nearly as long as the convoluted filmography of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which runs from “Iron Man” (2008) to “She-Hulk, Attorney At Law (last week).

If the panther plan had gone through, it would have been a Marvel-ous achievement: the biggest endangered species conservation plan east of the Mississippi River. But now, instead of soaring to approval, it’s dropped in the dirt.

So how did this long-running drive go off the rails?

When I asked the feds, they had little to say. According to spokesperson Chuck Underwood, “As the decision to withdraw the application was by the East Collier Property Owners, we would refer you to them.”

Yet documents I saw show the property owners blamed the feds for causing everything to go (to use a highly technical term) ker-flooey.

Looks to me like negotiations fell apart over one question: Would the plan really protect our 200 or so endangered cats, or just provide the landowners with window dressing for their rapacious disruption of the habitat?

The fact that this whole effort came to naught has some people pretty upset.

“It’s really raw to me right now,” Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife, the organization that first proposed this plan, told me. “It’s such a lost opportunity.”

Footing the bill

Waaaay back near the start of this 12-year process, I asked the former leader of Defenders of Wildlife in Florida, Laurie MacDonald, why she would try to cut a deal with developers and miners.

The answer she gave me was straightforward. She had learned she could not trust the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do its job. Over and over the agency in charge of protecting the panthers from extinction had let them down.

Often when federal biologists in Florida tried to block development plans in panther habitat, their bosses in Atlanta would overrule them. Sometimes they were ordered to use junk science to justify approving a development. A whistleblower in the agency sued to make them stop that. He won but lost his job and had to fight to get it back.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has other problems besides requiring the removal of its employees’ spines. No matter which party is in power, the service is constantly underfunded. It certainly didn’t have the resources to give a thorough review of the massive HCP submitted by the landowners’ consultant.

Yet the service — somehow — found a way to help pay the consultant to draw up the plan in the first place. It forked over $765,357 in grants to help cover what the landowners’ spokesperson told me a few years ago wound up being “north of $1 million.”

This is where I should mention that the landowners are not poor folks needing government assistance. Their numbers include not one but two companies named for the developer who started Collier County and also controversial former state wildlife commissioner Liesa Priddy.

So in a way it makes sense that the Fish and Wildlife Service got them to foot the bill for reviewing the plan they submitted. Here’s the way the odd arrangement was described last year in a publication called “The Intercept“: “A memorandum of agreement signed by the agency and (the property owners) in June 2016 stipulates that the landowners would pay FWS more than $200,000 to fund the agency’s normal operations while it dedicated staff away from those duties to facilitate the development and review of the conservation plan and associated permits. FWS ultimately invoiced Collier Enterprises for at least $292,000.”

In response to that story, the service put out a strange press release trying to explain that this was all perfectly fine and not a conflict of interest:

“The service created a firewall between the Collier County landowners and the permit they sought,” the release explained. “This arrangement allowed senior and experienced biologists to undertake the difficult analyses needed … while also allowing other biologists to tackle the more routine permit applications without delay.”

The funny thing is that the landowners are now acting like they didn’t get their money’s worth.

‘Fatally flawed’

As often happens when there’s an environmental issue in Florida, environmental groups are at odds over what to do.

On one side are the deal-cutters who try to negotiate at least a partial win. In this case, that’s Defenders, Audubon of Florida, and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

On the other side, are the hard-liners who fight every step of the way, even at the risk of defeat. Here the leading group is the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and they drew plenty of flak for opposing the landowners.

The Conservancy hired a couple of scientists to review the HCP. One was a panther expert named Robert Frakes, the other an expert on conservation planning named Reed Noss. Neither endorsed it. Quite the opposite.

I called Noss, who in addition to his Ph.D. in wildlife ecology holds a black belt in karate. I kept my tone respectful, as I always do when speaking to a real Iron Man who could easily kick my butt.

“It’s fatally flawed,” he said of the big plan. “It would need to be completely redone.”

He found several serious problems. The biggest one was easy to spot:

The leading cause of death for panthers these days is being run over by cars and trucks (some of them, no doubt, bearing “Protect the Panther” license plates).The new developments envisioned in the HCP would put around 200,000 more vehicles a day onto roads around the region.Yet the plan offered zero options for steering the drivers away from turning every panther into a pancake.

Not just panthers would get flattened, Noss noted. Other imperiled species would go splat as well, including gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, bonneted bats, wood storks, and eagles.

Yet the HCP ignored this problem, he said, offering no new wildlife underpasses, fences, or any other structures to stop the potential slaughter outside its own footprint. Instead, it talked about the acreage that would be preserved, as if that somehow made up for all the added traffic.

Noss told me that to really protect panthers would cost the landowners something like “a couple of hundred million.” A huge investment, sure, but without it, their plan simply wouldn’t work, he said. How could they skip even addressing it?

I think the landowners just thought they could get away with it.

Hiring She-Hulk

Christian Spilker, a senior vice president of Collier Enterprises, once served as the primary spokesman for the landowners. I interviewed him back in 2018, which is, ironically, when Marvel’s “Black Panther movie hit theaters.

Spilker insisted that holding the developers whose projects create all the new traffic responsible for the driving abilities of those 200,000 new drivers is just wrong.

“I don’t control your driving — or your texting and driving — that might have caused you to run over a panther,” he told me then. But he promised the Fish and Wildlife Service would analyze the impact of all those new drivers on the panther population.

Boy, did they. Those “senior and experienced biologists” freed up by the property owners’ money reached a conclusion similar to Noss’. They said the landowners would be responsible for the new drivers running over panthers, so the landowners would have to fix this.

Otherwise, they said, no federal permits could be issued. Under the Endangered Species Act, those projects would jeopardize the future existence of Florida’s state animal.

Hey look, I see a spine suddenly sprouting!

In response, the landowners pursued a time-tested approach to dealing with any government employee refusing to bow the knee: Go straight to the top.

The owners had hired their own, non-green version of “She-Hulk, Attorney At Law”: a well-connected Washington lawyer named Andrew J. Turner. His job: muscle those pipsqueak biologists into submission by complaining to their Big Boss.

According to documents sent me by Amber Crooks of the Conservancy, in 2020 Turner pleaded their case to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, a Trump appointee whose experience as a former Monsanto employee did not include managing fish or wildlife.

Skipwith’s reply to Turner was a terse “Thank you for message and will look into this matter of the delay.” Whether she did look into it or forgot about it, nothing happened to move the ball downfield.

The impasse remained until last week. That’s when Turner’s clients, refusing to budge, backed out.

I contacted Turner to ask him how he failed to persuade the most developer-friendly administration in U.S. history to do his clients’ bidding. He didn’t reply. I assume he was busy calculating how many thousands of dollars to charge the landowners for trying to avoid spending millions.

Instead, in response, a very nice woman named Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster from a Fort Myers public relations firm emailed me the official statement of the Colliers, Priddy et. al.

That statement said, in part, “It has become increasingly apparent that an HCP permit is not forthcoming, due in part to repeated delays caused by questions about future issues outside of the HCP area.”

That’s a very polite way to say, “We’re too cheap to do what’s right,” don’t you think?

Build a monument

The question I asked everyone I talked to was: What happens now? The consensus was that instead of one big project, the landowners will break their projects into individual pieces to get separate permits.

According to Crooks, the individual permitting process has already started with a project called Bellmar that’s supposed to plop 8,600 new residents next to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Buzzacco-Foerster told me that the landowners “intend to continue working together with their conservation group partners toward implementation of the tenets of the HCP, including permanent preservation of areas identified for preservation.”

But the basic problem will remain with each project: As more people crowd into panther habitat, they will bring more cars and trucks that the panthers will have to dodge.

I consulted a recently retired panther biologist, Deborah Jansen, who has studied the big cats since 1981. She cares so much about saving them that she once gave a dying panther mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She made it clear she had no involvement in the HCP but easily named the problem with any further development of that part of Collier.

“I really doubt that the panther can survive,” she said, “as long as it isn’t protected from roads.”

Alas, no Marvel superheroes are going to swoop down and solve this. We mere humans are going to have to figure out if we want to allow developers to do whatever they please to make a big profit on their land while ignoring the impact on our treasured natural resources.

I have what I think is a practical solution, one inspired by the fine folks in Wausau. I would allow the landowners to build whatever they want on their land. But they can’t build a single road, and they have to tear out any that are there now. No vehicles allowed. Access is only on foot.

That way they wouldn’t have to build all those expensive wildlife protection measures. Then they could use all the money they save by building a grand monument to our state animal.

If nothing else, it will remind everyone that we used to have one.

___

Craig Pittman reporting via Florida Phoenix.

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: [email protected]. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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