A proposal to create a new wildlife refuge in the headwaters of the Everglades has sparked a strong backlash against what opponents are calling "another government land grab."
At four public hearings over the past month, hundreds of people showed up, most of them to rail against plans for a 150,000-acre Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Central Florida.
The size of the crowds — more than 600 at one hearing — surprised officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Charlie Pelizza, a manager of several wildlife refuges who has been in charge of the hearings.
The level of opposition, and the determination of some opponents to show up repeatedly at hearings in Kissimmee, Okeechobee, Sebring and Vero Beach, also surprised them, he said.
"We just seem to have found a group of individuals who are concerned about the project, and they wanted to make sure their voices were heard," Pelizza said. As a result, the deadline for commenting on the plan has been pushed back from Feb. 28 to March 31.
"It got very heated," said Ruskin attorney Scott Fitzpatrick, who represents Polk County landowners opposing the refuge plan. "I hope the project will be amended to reflect the concerns that were expressed."
Federal officials want to create the refuge as a way to preserve habitat for such species as the Florida panther and black bear, protect areas that recharge the aquifer and maintain the land's rural character.
Some of the opponents are hunters and anglers concerned they might lose access to property they now use, Pelizza said. Some are airboat and all-terrain-vehicle users with similar concerns based on past experiences with federal parks and refuges.
"We're against any federal sprawl," said Bishop Wright Jr., president of the Florida Airboat Association. "We don't condone the 'lock it up, keep it out' theory."
Some opponents don't believe the government should spend millions of dollars on a refuge at a time when the economy is so sour, said Fitzpatrick. And some — particularly his clients in the River Ranch Property Owners Association — are concerned that the government is targeting their property for acquisition whether they like it or not, he said.
The groundswell of anger began when the proposal unveiled by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last month included a map covering far more than just 150,000 acres. Instead, it showed a swath of more than 1 million acres of rural land stretching from the outskirts of the town of Kissimmee to the northern shore of Lake Okeechobee as the "study area" within which the refuge would be created.
The study area map upset a lot of the opponents because it showed that the government was interested in so much land, said Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation native and author of Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier, who spoke in favor of the refuge plan at the Kissimmee hearing.
"I believe a lot of the opposition seemed to be based on conspiracy theories instead of what's really going on," Ward said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service called this area "one of the great grassland and savanna landscapes in eastern North America." The River of Grass originated there, the water from the Kissimmee flowing slowly southward into Lake Okeechobee, then spilling over the lip of the lake into the main Everglades — until the Army Corps of Engineers altered the flow in the 1960s.
Instead of buying up all 150,000 acres, the federal government would take a different tack. About 50,000 acres would be purchased outright, and then on about 100,000 acres the Fish and Wildlife Service would buy only the development rights — in effect guaranteeing that the property would never be turned into subdivisions, golf courses, parking lots or big-box stores like a lot of the state's rural land.
To Norman Miller, 82, a part-time resident of Sanibel, saving all that farmland sounded like a great idea. Miller, who still owns a farm in his native Indiana, drove over to the hearing in the Okeechobee High School and got very excited when he saw the 500-seat gym filled.
Miller told the crowd he supported what the agency was doing and urged them to get behind it too. He thought they would applaud him. Instead, "They said, 'Go back to Indiana!' " he said. "I've never experienced that before."
Many of them, Miller said, seemed to "think that everything associated with the federal government is bad."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.