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History of Big Cypress

1974
President Gerald Ford
Secretary of Interior Rogers Morton
Governor of Florida: Reubin Askew
Superintendent Fred Fagergren

When most people think of the swamps of South Florida they think "Everglades". However, the immense wilderness of marshes, bogs, hammocks, and "river of grass", between Naples and Miami, are actually two ecosystems…the Everglades and the Big Cypress.

Big Cypress and the Everglades are separate geographic features with slightly different topographies, with Big Cypress being one to two feet higher in elevation. A "peninsular divide", with water flowing in different directions on either side separates the two ecosystems. The broad savannas of the Everglades give way to the uplands and tree hammocks in the Big Cypress. About one third of Big Cypress is covered with cypress trees. There are sandy islands of slash pine, mixed with hardwood hammocks of maple, oak, strangler fig, coco plum, and gumbo-limbo. Air plants, both bromeliads and orchids, perch on the cypress and hammock trees. There are wet prairies of black head rush, ribbon lily, hempvine, and dry prairies of saw palmetto. The marshes consist of sawgrass, arrowhead, and cattail.

Before the canals were dug, the Everglades received its source of water from Lake Okeechobee. Today most of that water is diverted through canals. The Big Cypress has no outside source of water; over 97 percent of the water is supplied by rain, with sixty inches of rainfall in an average year. The most significant difference between the two ecosystems is that the Everglades is ill. Farms and chemical run-off, diversion of water from Lake Okeechobee, and encroaching development from the east coast, have reduced the Everglades to approximately one half its original size. On the other hand, Big Cypress is healthy, and much larger than the Everglades with over 2,400 square miles of subtropical acreage.

The name "Big Cypress" defines the size of the area, not the size of the trees. Most specimens in the Big Cypress are the Dwarf Pond Cypress variety, mere shadows of the once-large cypress trees in the Preserve that were logged out between 1920-1950. Today, the Big Cypress National Preserve consists of 728,000 acres located in Collier and Lee Counties, in the south west of Florida. The Big Cypress Watershed area benefits from along history of preservation efforts. It is owned by the governments of Florida and the United States, and surrounded by the Everglades National Park, the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, the National Panther Refuge, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the aquatic preserves. These all combine to protect the relatively pristine Big Cypress Watershed from development.

Creating the Big Cypress National Preserve was quite an undertaking. Former assistant Secretary of the Interior, Nathaniel Reed, describes the Big Cypress story as "…chaotic, wonderful, and full of twists and turns." To convince the public and our elected officials that the Big Cypress was worthy of saving; to put an area as large as the state of Delaware into a single management unity; to track down the 35,000-50,000 individuals who may, or may not, hold title to the land and negotiate settlements, was a major task. If it had not been for the hard work of conservationists, Big Cypress's future would have been development.

Originally, the Big Cypress was to be included within the boundaries of the Everglades National Park, but the time wasn't right for a huge new National Park…the depression had come, followed by war. By 1947, when the Everglades was finally made into a National Park, over a half million acres were missing…the Big Cypress.

By the time conservationists became concerned about the Big Cypress in the late 1960's it had already been logged. The giant Bald Cypress that had sprouted at the time of the Magna Charta, and were already bearded with moss when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, were cut down. Four hundred million board feet of pine timber, and three hundred sixty million board feet of Cypress were logged from the Big Cypress before it became a preserve.

Oil had been discovered at Bear Island, and many other drill sites were in the process of construction, criss-crossing the Big Cypress with roads that interrupted the natural flow of ground water. One old timer put it this way, "Think'n 'bout movin' on. There's no peace left in this country anymore…just for the noise of all the machinery running."
    Cattle grazed on the land, utilizing some 440,000 acres.

    Orange groves and vegetables utilized another 42,000 acres.

    And, development was on its way…

On the western edge of Big Cypress, the Gulf American Land Corporation was cutting out 20ft swaths through the cypress trees to create the community of Golden Gate Estates. After the swaths were cut, roads created, and drainage canals dug, the area was parched and lifeless for miles around. "The wilderness has been pushed aside," proclaimed one promotional brochure, "With calipers, and slide rules, draglines, and dynamite rigs, we are literally changing the face of Florida." And they did.

In 1968, when the plans for the Jetport in Big Cypress were unveiled, it touched off a rash of speculative land sales, driving up the prices of the once worthless swampland more than tenfold. The Jetport was going to be located mid-way between Miami and Naples along Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41). It was going to change everything. The Jetport was going to be the biggest airport in the world, with the longest runway in the world, and that would change aviation. It was going to stimulate development of a new community of 150,000 people, and that would change the demography of south Florida. It was going to generate five million gallons of sewage and industrial wastes, and more than 25 tons of jet fuel pollutants each day. The plans included a "high speed air-cushioned bus", traveling between 150-200 miles per hour, connecting the east coast of Florida with the west coast of Florida. These plans, if fully developed, would have devastated the Everglades National Park, not to mention the Big Cypress.

When certain people objected to these changes, the Jetport sponsors told them not to worry. They said they would entertain the naysayers by providing an astrodome for organized butterfly chasing, and possible preservation of the yellow-bellied sapsuckers. One of the sponsors, Richard Judy, believed it to be nothing less than manifest destiny. "We will do our best," he declared, "to meet our responsibilities, and the responsibilities of all men, to exercise dominion over the land, sea, and air above us, as the higher order of man intends."

At the ground breaking ceremony for the Jetport, Chief Buffalo Tiger, Chairman of the Miccosukee Indians, said, "Indians have always given way, moving away from progress in search of peace and quiet, but now there is no place to go."

The development was proceeding smoothly until Robert Padrick, Chairman of the Central Southern Florida Flood Control District, voiced his concern that the road and transportation corridor would pass through Conservation District #3. When Nathaniel Reed, environmental advisor to Florida Governor Claude Kirk Jr., and Art Marshall, ecologist, researcher, and teacher at the University of Miami, looked at the hydrological maps, they didn't like what they saw. The bulldozers and pavers were already in action when Nathaniel Reed wrote a report to Governor Claude Kirk Jr. explaining the situation. The report prompted the Governor to look for a graceful way to back out of building the Jetport. Governor Claude Kirk Jr's support was vital. He, and Nathaniel Reed, testified before both houses of Congress to urge passage of the legislation to save Big Cypress.

The political events surrounding the Jetport were well documented by many newspapers and magazines, including Time, Life, Newsweek, and Playboy. The stories covered the justice department investigation of dummy corporations, which had bought land around the airport cheaply, suggesting insider knowledge and improper profits. Some stories centered on the vanishing species of the Everglades, such as the alligator, while other stories concentrated on the "other kind of wildlife"… the folks who lived out in the Big Cypress. However, most stories concentrated on the moral issue of man's "right" to develop the land in the way he chooses, over the "right" of the land to exist in it's natural form.

"The series of events that stopped the Jetport were created by a diverse group of individuals whose personal and political goals coincided at a time when environmentalism was a brand new idea," states Joe Browder, who was the Southeast Representative of the Audubon Society at that time, and later became the first Conservation Director of Friends of the Earth. He kept the Big Cypress issue alive at the national level.

The creation of a Jetport in such a pristine area brought the threat of eventual development to the entire Big Cypress Watershed basin. All of the studies made in connection with the Jetport pointed out the need to protect the Big Cypress Swamp. Joe Browder and Johnny Jones, of the Florida Wildlife Federation, along with Senator Lawton Chiles, and Nathaniel Reed, led the campaign to put Big Cypress into the National Parks system. When Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, at Senator Lawton Childes request, initiated his presidential campaign by holding a hearing in Miami and announcing his support for the acquisition of the Big Cypress, it prompted President Nixon to support acquisition, thereby taking the issue away from Senator Jackson. Another major contribution to preserving the Big Cypress was the cooperation and involvement of the Collier family who understood that over time, the Collier family development interests would be better off served if state and local governments had money to spend on schools, roads, and other services along the coastal area, instead of spending a fortune trying to drain the interior wetlands for development.

Marjory Stoneman-Douglas had gained fame with her book on the Everglades called "River of Grass", but at the time, she wasn't the outspoken environmentalist she was to become in later years. Marjory had been involved in the creation of the Everglades National Park, and she understood that the land of the Big Cypress had been intended to be a part of the Everglades. She was there when Ernest Coe, "the prophet, and unmistakable founder…" of Everglades National Park, walked out in disgust when he realized that his vision of the park would not include the Big Cypress, the Keys, and much of the off-shore reef territory. However, it wasn't until Joe Browder (?) convinced Marjory that she could use the fame she had achieved with her book to speak out on the issue of saving the Big Cypress. It was the Big Cypress that began Marjory Stoneman-Douglas's lifetime career as an outspoken, strident, environmentalist.

The fight over the Jetport, and the decision about whether Big Cypress was worth saving, were instrumental in the passage of several historic environmental laws. In 1960, the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established federal environmental review and compliance procedures. The author of the NEPA, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, felt the Jetport conflict was a prime illustration for why NEPA should be written. On one hand, the Interior Department was trying to protect the Everglades, while at the same time the Department of Transportation was providing money and the authority for a project that would damage the Everglades. Jackson felt that the NEPA would help various departments understand any conflicts in their policies and also alert decision makers, all the way up to the White House, of conflicting plans between departments.

The special Jetport/Big Cypress study done by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, of the National Academy of Science, became one of the models for the kind of scientific investigation that should be done in the Environmental Impact Statements, which later became an integral part of the NEPA.

The creation of a Jetport in such an environmentally sensitive area required intensive studies on the impact it was going to have on the Big Cypress and the Everglades. The studies were conducted by Dr. Luna Leoplold (one of Aldo Leopold's children), and compiled by Art Marshall. The studies became a catalyst for the passage, in 1972, of two Florida Acts: the Florida Water Resources Act, which established a fundamental water policy for Florida, and the Florida Land Conservation Act, which authorized the issuance of bonds to purchase environmentally endangered, and recreational lands.

The fight to save Big Cypress from development required serious scientific studies of the ecology and caused the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, The Florida Water Resources Act, and the Florida Land Conservation Act. Without these Acts, the fight today to save the Everglades, and other environmentally sensitive areas, would have little precedent on which to stand.

In April of 1972, Florida Governor Reubin Askew went before the Senate Interior Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation to request the help from the Federal Government to save and acquire the Big Cypress Preserve and to ensure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the natural scenery, the floral and fauna, and recreational values of the Big Cypress Watershed, and to protect the area as a source of water to the Everglades National Park and Collier County.

Many 'landowner' organizations, comprised and funded by real-estate companies in Miami, launched a barrage of complaints, catcalls, and accusations of "land grabbing" to the offices of the legislative body, in an effort to keep the Federal Government from "taking over" their land. At the time of the purchase, the Big Cypress Preserve contained 550 buildings, 89 year-around houses, 50 house trailers, 50 Indian Village dwellings, 1 motel, 2 restaurants, 9 service stations, and 400 hunting camps. The "great quantity" of 35,000-50,000 landowners consisted of speculators who had bought "Florida swampland" and did not live in the state, and in many cases, did not even live in this country.

As the battle to save Big Cypress heated up, critics said that conservationists were trying to halt man's progress. To this, Marjory Stoneman-Douglas replied: "There must be progress, certainly. But we must ask ourselves what kind of progress we want, and what price we want to pay for it. If, in the name of progress, we want to destroy everything beautiful in our world, and contaminate the air we breathe, and the water we drink, then we are in trouble."

Senator Lawton Chiles stated, "The Big Cypress is jeopardized by the pressure for progress based on sometimes well-intended, but too often ill-planned development…the fate of the broad, flat, very gently sloping watershed in Southwest Florida hangs in precarious balance…The Big Cypress has the potential for becoming a textbook, or classic example of ecological ruin if we don't save it."

Many small town hall meetings took place before the final passage of the act in the State Capitol. For the most part, the community of Naples was in favor of creating the Big Cypress National Preserve. These motions were supported by Ted LaRoe from the Conservancy, Bernie Yokel of Rookery Mrs. Harold Barclay of the Naples Woman's Club, Virginia and Sewell Corkran of the Audubon Society, and Jim Garret of the Izzak Walton League. Although the environmental groups were for the formation of the Preserve, they, and the National Park System, weren't comfortable with the unprecedented concept of letting people who owned existing homes, hunting camps, and businesses within the Preserve boundaries be allowed to keep them forever, and could sell them to anyone else who could also keep them forever. Nor were they comfortable with the idea of the decision to create perpetual legal rights for the Miccosukee and Seminole people in Big Cypress. Nor were they comfortable with the idea of allowing hunters and their swamp-buggies to roam freely throughout a Preserve. Big Cypress became the first area in the United States where Federal land use restrictions were going to be attempted. These ideas hadn't been included in any National Park before, and were unheard of at the time. However, since the hunters (Wildlife Federation) and the Indians were the ones fighting the hardest to save the Big Cypress, it didn't seem right that they should not be allowed access to it once it became a Park. Between the developers not wanting the Preserve to happen at all, and the National Park system and environmentalists arguing as to what the definition of the Preserve was going to be in its final decision, there always seemed to be enough controversy to fill newspapers, magazines, and town hall meetings. The controversy reached a high point when, for the first time, the Governor and his Cabinet convened, outside of Tallahassee in a historic meeting at the city hall of Naples to hear the various sides of the arguments.

The height of the tension between the developers and the conservationists can be summed up with this story from Joe Browder: "…one of the would-be developers actually put up reward posters in filling stations and bars along the Tamiami Trail and Loop Road, saying that God would reward any man who accidentally shot Joe Browder, Nathaniel Reed, or Bob Graham. The guy who put up the posters only backed off after an alligator poacher, only backed off after an alligator poacher, had become a friend of mine, someone with a known history of targeted violent behavior, went to the developer and said, 'If anything at all were to happen to me or Nathaniel, or Bob, the developer would painfully, and piece by piece, become alligator food!' The man who helped us was Bill Schoelerman, known on the Loop Road as 'Gator Bill, and considered by the National Park Service to be the leader of the poachers who hunted alligators in the Everglades National Park. How we got to be friends in another story…."

In 1973, the Florida Legislature, at the request of Governor Askew, authorized $40 million of state bond funds to be spent to initiate the purchase of Big Cypress. The Big Cypress Conservation Act was passed in the Florida House on May 24, 1973, and in the Florida Senate on May 31, 1973. The conservationists and developers, who had agreed with the final act, were shocked when days before the adoption of the boundaries and regulations, Florida legislators had pre-filed bills in the House and Senate that would repeal state control of the Big Cypress buffer zone, allowing development right up to the very edge of the Preserve. The hearings for the new bill would be taking place at the same time in both the House and Senate floors so that "…a quick man on roller skates couldn't make both hearings…". Mrs. Corkran of the Audubon Society was shocked. "I am indignant, not only because they are bringing these bills up again after they were apparently withdrawn, but because it is obvious that negotiations have been active without the participation of the public officials that represent this area." The opposition to the passage of the Big Cypress Conservation Act thought that hearing the new bill at the same time in both the House and Senate would be good tactics to "divide and conquer" the conservationists. The uproar was finally brought under control when the Governors office insinuated the bill was being railroaded through the committee. The hearing was postponed. When the hearing was finally held, at a time and place where all could once again air their opinions, the bill failed, allowing the original Big Cypress Conservation Act to become adopted by the sate of Florida.

The contribution of $40 million for the Big Cypress Preserve coming from the sate of Florida garnered the support in Congress, and in 1974 Congress passed the bill and sent it to President Richard Nixon, authorizing the Federal Government to spend $150 million to purchase the Big Cypress National Preserve. On October 11, 1974, under the leadership of President Gerald Ford, the Big Cypress National Preserve came into being.

Written by Niki Butcher

Thanks to: Big Cypress National Preserve, Marian Wack; Collier County Historical Museum; Mr. Nathaniel Reed; Mr. Joe Browder; Naples Daily News; Beth Peacock, Student Conservation Association Associate, 1997.

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