10,000 home development slated for critical habitat for Florida panther

A mere 10 to 20 Florida panthers roamed South Florida in 1967, the year the beleaguered animal made a list of endangered species. Today the estimate is a little more than 200 of the big cats freely roam the interior of the Florida Peninsula. But as Southwest Florida continues to expand east, conservationists fear the end is officially near for the Florida panther.

“I’m asking for prayers for the panther, and the Panther Nation. If you guys keep making room for more people, more people keep coming. And if you guys let them, they’re going to destroy every square inch of this place before they’re satisfied,” said Garrett Stuart, an environmental consultant and biologist who runs the Eco Preservation Project. He’s also a Native American.

This clearly passionate scientist was among some 30 demonstrators in the rain outside an Eastern Lee County Library Tuesday. Inside, the state environmental protection agency was taking public comment before deciding if a Lee County developer can build 10,000 homes in habitat critical to the Florida panther.

That many homes could translate into 95,000 additional vehicle trips a day on eastern Corkscrew Road.

READ MORE: Sundial: ‘Path of the Panther’ follows the people trying to save Florida’s biggest cat

The state Department of Environmental Protection and a federal judge who has been asked to intervene are likely the only entities that can stop the Kingston Project. It’s been out of the county’s hands for a little less than a year.

“You know, my elders used to call these kinds of people the foam because there’s no soul in foam,” said Stuart of the developers. “Because how can people treat the earth like this if they have a soul? It’s always done for a quick dollar. So they can buy fancy things before they arrive to hell.”

Stuart also thanked the multiple people hoping to save the panther and environmentally sensitive land. “Nature needs you. Nature sees you. Nature says thank you.”

For decades this vast swath of land abutting Corkscrew Regional Water Shed in South Eastern Lee County grew in citrus groves.

Weighted down by debt, owners of the old Corkscrew Plantation orange grove sought bankruptcy protection in 2011 and set sights on blowing up the land for rock mining.

Lee County denied it. And then denied it again.

Laws allowing landowners a right to recoup losses and depending on who you ask, a weakening of environmental protections, have potentially set in motion a new planned development that is the size of a city. Developers want 10,000 homes, 240 hotel rooms and a large commercial area.

In return, the developer has promised to restore some 3,200 acres of critical environmental land.

Still many environmental groups say the Kingston project could be the finish of the Florida panther.

“How can we have goals of recovery when we’re destroying the core habitat of the panther? This is the core habitat of panthers,” said 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. So I don’t understand the logic of these agencies.”

Development in this area was supposed to be limited — meaning extra-low density because this is a water-recharge area among other things. The 10,000 homes is far from low density.

Once common throughout the southeastern United States, fewer than 100 Florida panthers are estimated to live in the wilds of south Florida today. (NPS)

Once common throughout the southeastern United States, fewer than 100 Florida panthers are estimated to live in the wilds of south Florida today. (NPS)

If given the greenlight from the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission predicts some 23 panthers could be killed, injured or greatly impacted in within the first year. And each year thereafter another 22 or so could die or be drastically impacted by habitat loss or vehicle strikes.

“Twenty-something panthers would be killed as a result of this development. I don’t know what to say, you know, our public agencies are supposed to protect the public and the things that we honor and respect, which is our wildlife and our endangered species. That’s not happening. Obviously, they’re weighing in on the wrong side of this issue. That’s all I have to say,” Whitehead said.

Public comment was supposed to end by midnight Tuesday, but the state has decided to give the public until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 23. Written comments may be emailed to [email protected]

Copyright 2024 WGCU

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