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Conservation Collision

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  • | 5:27 p.m. February 26, 2009
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A conservation group backed by millions of dollars from wealthy Naples residents is seeking tighter federal restrictions on large-scale development.

Get ready for a catfight.

An influential Naples-based environmental group called the Conservancy of Southwest Florida recently asked the federal government for greater protection of the Florida panther by restricting development on more than half a million acres of private lands in rural Collier, Hendry and Lee counties.

Seizing on the political winds of change in favor of environmentalists, the Conservancy is breaking ranks with other environmental groups, which have advocated working with landowners to create a panther-protection plan.

The Conservancy says a coalition of environmentalists and landowners formed last year is not doing enough to protect the panther, whose population is now about 100. These are wide-ranging animals that need millions of acres to roam.

At issue is the panther's primary habitat, an area that covers nearly 2.3 million acres in South Florida. Of that land, about three-quarters is already in public hands. But the remaining land is in private hands and valuable for development.

If the federal government accepts the petition, it will decide which lands should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. When that happens, the federal government will be able withhold development permits for large projects on more than half a million acres in Southwest Florida because of the panther.

The Conservancy filed its petition one day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Andrew McElwaine, the Conservancy's president and chief executive officer, acknowledges that the political climate is more favorable today. Besides the new Obama administration's environmental bent, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has staked his legacy on being the “green” governor by pushing the massive purchase of U.S. Sugar's lands and appointing environmentalists to the powerful South Florida Water Management District, he says.

At the same time, landowners and developers are financially weaker now because of the economic downturn. They don't have as much money to fight environmentalists and the government, especially if the downturn is prolonged.

But the Conservancy's confrontational stance over the panther isn't sitting well with other environmental groups, either.

“We won't achieve our conservation goals if we don't work with landowners,” says Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative with the Florida Wildlife Federation. Payton recently was awarded the Pathfinder Award from the Urban Land Institute for her work to foster this kind of cooperation.

“There is already resentment in our community concerning panthers,” she says.

“Without the mutual interest, I think you're destined to keep going to court,” says Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for the Collier County Audubon Society and Audubon of Florida. “That's not a viable option.”
For their part, landowners and developers remain mum about the split. Only Collier Enterprises responded to requests for interviews with a written statement saying it is still reviewing the Conservancy's petition. “We are keeping an open mind,” it says.

Favorable political winds
The Obama administration was just one day old when the Conservancy filed its petition with Ken Salazar, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Clearly, the Naples organization believes it will have a better shot with a new administration that looks more favorably on such regulations.

But some environmental groups say Salazar isn't as “green” as many might believe. “He is as moderate as you can be,” Payton says. “He's an advocate of getting people in a room to work it out.”

As state attorney general in Colorado, Salazar threatened to sue the federal government over the Endangered Species Act because it was too intrusive. “What it signals to us in the environmental community is it encourages us to do what we're doing,” Payton says.

Still, most agree the Obama administration is likely to be more receptive than its predecessor. And Crist has staked his political career on being the “green” governor, spending millions of taxpayer dollars on environmental projects even as the state's economy falls deeper into recession, and even vetoing cuts to the Florida Forever environmental lands purchase program.

Once the federal government has more say over what happens in panther habitat, local government won't be able to interfere. “The county doesn't have authority over the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts,” McElwaine says.

The Conservancy's McElwaine says the federal government must establish panther protections because local governments are giving in to projects such as Big Cypress, a new town Collier Enterprises plans to build on primary panther habitat in eastern Collier County. Collier County is nearing approval of development on 45,000 acres of panther habitat under its Rural Lands Stewardship Area. “That has not been acceptable,” McElwaine says.

In a written statement, Collier Enterprises says: “We are still reviewing the [federal] petition and considering what it would mean to a private landowner like Collier Enterprises. However, if the goal is to use sound science and current data to reflect what is actually occurring on the ground, then that would be a good thing — it could complement the years of work and cooperative effort that led to the Panther Protection Program. However, if the result would be to undercut all of that work, then Collier Enterprises would likely not be supportive. We are keeping an open mind.”

The Conservancy has the financial wherewithal to take on landowners and developers. With a board of retired chief executives, bankers and attorneys, it has raised $26 million lately for its $33 million capital campaign. Besides improving its Naples campus, the organization hopes to raise another $4 million to boost an endowment that will help fund its daily operations so it's not solely dependent on donations from year to year.

Environmental split
Environmental groups such as the Florida Wildlife Federation and Audubon Florida established a panther protection program last year with major landowners in Collier County such as Alico, Barron Collier Cos., Collier Enterprises, Consolidated Citrus, English Brothers, Half Circle Ranch, Pacific Tomato Growers and Sunniland.

The program has gathered a team of half dozen scientists who are leaders in their field of panther research, including one from the Conservancy. They will recommend where development should or should not go. “The decisions have to be science-based,” says Payton.

McElwaine of the Conservancy says he's concerned the science won't be reviewed by peers and won't be binding on the landowners. “I'm happy to work with them to have a binding settlement,” McElwaine says.

But Payton says science and property rights have to be balanced to find a solution to the panther's survival. “We chose to work in the real world,” she says. “The majority of the conservation organizations stayed at the table.”

More regulations will antagonize the landowners. “If we can't convince the landowners...then we can't recover the panther,” says Cornell. “They're not going to be motivated if you treat them like dirt,” he adds.

“There's a place for litigation, for bad actors who thumb their noses at the Endangered Species Act,” Cornell says. “These landowners are not thumbing their noses at us.”

The Conservancy doesn't see it that way.

McElwaine says landowners want to save certain critical areas such as the land near the intersection of Oil Well Road and State Road 29 for future development, for example. That land lies in the middle of the major north-south panther corridors. Instead, the program is working on a plan that would create “little bitty panther corridors, 300 feet wide in some cases,” McElwaine says.

The Conservancy is not anti-growth, McElwaine insists. If the Department of the Interior accepts to review the Conservancy's petition, the economic impact of any plan will have to be considered. “You can't preserve everything,” McElwaine says.


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