One of the original and biggest “swampland in Florida” real estate schemes left buyers with property that was literally underwater during the rainy season, instead of high and dry. Even worse, the natural flow of the “River of Grass” into southwest Florida was siphoned off, damaging the native plants and wildlife. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Picayune Strand, on the western edge of the Big Cypress National Preserve near Naples, was logged for its abundant cypress.
In the mid-1960s, Gulf American Land Corp. bought 57,000 acres of land, partially drained it using a network of canals and built miles of roads. Lots in Southern Golden Gate Estates, dubbed the world’s largest subdivision, were sold to unsuspecting long-distance buyers who needed rowboats to reach their lots in rainy June. Unable to build despite the canals, developers went bankrupt. Nevertheless, canals continued to dump millions of gallons of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico, damaging the Ten Thousand Islands nearby, upsetting plant and wildlife communities and increasing the number of wildfires. “It was a microcosm of what has happened all over this part of Florida at the time,” says Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist, Everglades Foundation, of the “ditch, drain and destroy” attitude of the time.
The Picayune Strand is a key piece of the restoration of natural water flow through wildlife habitat areas in southwest Florida. Just east is the Big Cypress National Preserve. It is surrounded by other public lands including Everglades National Park, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Fakahatchee Strand Perserve State Park. The Picayune Strand has been dubbed the “missing piece of the puzzle.”
The state of Florida began an ambitious plan in 1985 to buy back the land – a painstaking search for 17,000 owners — and restore the Strand. The Picayune Strand Restoration Project seeks to undo what man has done by plugging 40 miles of canals, removing 227 miles of roads and re-creating a fully functioning wetland area. The project, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, is one of the first Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects under construction. So far, seven miles of canals have been filled and 65 miles of roads ripped out, resulting in the restoration of 13,000 acres of the forest.
Eventually, 85 square miles of land will be restored. The Picayune Strand is a hydric forest, that is, much of it is under water as a result of the heavy rainfall of the wet season. The restoration will allow the cypress strands, wet prairie and pine flatwoods native to the lowlands to return in abundance. Subtropical hardwood hammocks will flourish in the uplands. The water quality and natural flow into local estuaries will improve. The forest also will welcome home black bears, bald eagles, wood storks, Big Cypress fox squirrels, swallow-tailed kites and the endangered Florida panther. “If we can get the water back flowing as it was intended, we will have a very functional, very beautiful ecosystem,” says Van Lent.