Picayune Stand’s story is the story of Florida at its very worst, and at its very best.
In the 1940s and 50s, this 74,000 acres was logged of its giant cypress; in the 1960s, Gulf American Land Corporation “dynamited” canals, and roads were built for “Golden Gate Estates,” a Florida real estate scheme that never materialized. Gulf American sold plenty of swamp land, finally going bankrupt. This most beautiful of places was left broken and ravaged. Times changed. The public fought for these lands, and in 2000, Picayune Strand became elevated as the first project of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP. It is almost done…
On April 29, I visited this CERP project held and managed as Picayune Strand State Forest. Its stakeholders include the Florida Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Wildlife Commission, and Collier County. It was an inspiring field trip that I will share with you today.
SFWMD Lead Project manager, Joanna Weaver, and I drove for two hours to arrive at our destination in Collier County. Around a picnic table, we met ecologist, Mike Duever; Florida Forest Service biologist, Mike Knight; and Florida Forest Service fire expert, Sean Allen. As we all stood or sat around the table six feet apart, Mr Duever, thoughtfully gave his presentation. I listened intently. I think at first, he may have seen me a “lady from the city,” but I quickly won him over with my knowledge and love of plants and animals. After an excellent hour of intense slides and discussion, we paired off in trucks to take a tour. I was partnered with Mr Duever.-There is north Golden Gate Estates and south Golden Gate Estates. Picayune Strand State Forest is “south Golden Gate Estates” -south of I-75 (Alligator Alley). North Golden Gate Estates (north of I-75) is a neighborhood. On the map below, you can see the outlines of the roads now labeled as Picayune Strand State Forest south of I-75. The roads you see north of I-75 comprise the neighborhood of north Golden Gate Estates. The north was developed; the south became Picayune Stand State Forest. -Mr Duever’s handout demonstrates what was on the lands and is now removed, or in the process thereof. First, logging trams in red; Second, canals in blue; and roads in grey. Mind you the property is 74,000 acres! -This is the back page of Mr Duever’s handout. Blue boxes equal the year/s canals were filled and thus the number of growing seasons for recovering vegetation and trees. Yellow boxes equal the year/s roads were removed thus also the number of growing seasons. Some areas have had more time to heal than others. -In this handout, note three red squares at the top of the image. These red squares represent the three pump stations that are/will create sheet flow, restoring the hydrology and creating healthy habitat. Miller Pump Station, (far left), must meet flood protection standards for Lipman Farms on the east. This is being addressed now. Lipman Farms granted an easement for the building a protection levee. The entire project must not jeopardize flood protection for northern Gold Gate Estates, thus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers portion of the CERP project, the gigantic pumps! -Below: Sean Allen of the Florida Forest Service loves his job. “Have you ever seen a panther?” I asked.” Absolutely!” He replies, looking in every direction. Picayune Strand is Panther Mitigation habitat for the state of Florida. This is panther country!
I was very lucky to be paired up with Mike Duever. He has devoted his life to the restoration of these lands working first with National Audubon, then a long career with the SFWMD. He now works as a consultant for the SFWMD because no one knows the project like he does.
As he calmly took me over the bumpy roads, all the years, all of the ups and downs, all of the successes, all of the disappointments since 2000, I asked: “Are you ever upset that Picayune is not finished yet?”
“Jacqui,” he replied, looking at me with steel violet eyes, “restoration is full of “surprises.” What’s important is to do it the right way.” His glance veered off to the horizon.
By the end of the day, I felt I’d met John Muir himself.
We drove and drove. There were times it was just quiet.
I saw a giant eagle’s nest, deer, blue herons, alligators and beautiful wildflowers. We drove, got out, got in. There were miles of filled-in canals and roads made one with the earth around them. The forest retuning…
Things weren’t perfect. Mr Duever spoke of an invasion of sable palms and the forestry service explained how the palms act as a middle story between the lower and upper stories, something these lands never had, sometimes promoting out of control wildfires that kill everything.
So much had been accomplished. So much was left to do…
It was complicated. Restoration is complicated. But like Mike Duever taught me that day, it is not about getting rattled by the “surprises,” it’s about the long view. It is about the horizon.
One day, not too far away, all of the giant pumps, not just two, will spread out the “flood waters” creating a sheet flow across the lands during the wet season. All of the trams, and roads will have been removed and the canals will all have been filled, leaving little pools for life to gather. The groundwater will synchronize; the cypress will come in where now willow stands. The wading birds will have thousands of areas to nurture their young. The panther will roam looking for deer and hog and the cry of eagle will echo through the cypress strands.
It will happen. Don’t look down. -Horizon.
-Mike Duever -Too many sable palms endanger the pines and cypress when fire strikes. Many must be removed.-Mr Duever holds a wildflower, Pink-Sabitia -Filled in canal -Removed roadbed. In time, vegetation will grow in.-Some areas of canals are left for water -Wildflowers and uplands-a giant blue bee! -Joanna assesses progress and things yet to come… -The history of Florida is written in these rocks piled high along the canals.-Mike Duever explains that this area was the greatest of the ancient cypress swamp. The willow he says is a precursor for its return. -A young cypress-A pond/canal adjacent to the former cypress swamp expands and contracts with the seasons. It is filled with fishes and gators. Look a snail! Life is retuning…
-Final visit, the pump stations. Ominous! These things are huge and impressively spotless.
We meet Charles Hendrickson, a wildlife-loving engineer who works for the SFWMD. “I love the nature here. It’s getting to be more and more.” I count 12 alligators near the intake canal and six standing wading birds. He tells me he once saw flamingos! Next, taking his phone out of his pocket, Charles shows me a photograph of hundreds of white pelicans that visited the Merrit Pump Station just days days before. Incredible! As I wave goodbye, I notice Charles looking beyond.
Eye on the horizon…