Several South Florida landowners are willing to sell enough land to the federal government to triple the size of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, according to four environmental groups pushing the purchase as a way to provide Florida's state animal with more protected habitat.
However, the environmental groups don't know how much such a purchase would cost. And they would not identify all the landowners involved.
Meanwhile another environmental group is already raising questions about whether the purchase of up to 50,000 acres would constitute double-dipping. The reason: some landowners have already agreed to give up development rights on their land in exchange for permission to develop elsewhere.
The refuge now covers 26,400 acres in the heart of the Big Cypress swamp, part of the western headwaters of the Everglades. It's 20 miles east of Naples.
The land is entirely set aside for nature. On average, five to 11 panthers utilize the refuge each month, out of the 100 or so now prowling what's left of the South Florida wilderness.
Outside the refuge, life is a little tougher for the panthers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not stopped a single development in panther habitat since 1993, and has repeatedly rejected calls to designate any of the remaining undeveloped area as "critical habitat," which deserves greater scrutiny prior to approving its development.
Last year, a coalition of groups that included the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club sued the agency over the critical habitat question.
Meanwhile, another coalition that includes the Defenders of Wildlife and Audubon of Florida has been trying to work with the big landowners in Collier County to set aside land for panthers in exchange for the right to develop other land.
The second group is the one that announced Monday its effort to add the 50,000 acres to the panther refuge.
"We find this a tremendous opportunity," said St. Petersburg resident Laurie Macdonald of Defenders of Wildlife.
When reporters asked how much that land might cost the taxpayers, Brad Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society said, "A lot of money." But he shied away from setting a dollar figure.
Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida estimated the average per-acre value might be $4,000, which would mean the total for 50,000 acres would run to $200 million.
As for the source of funding, the groups listed two possibilities — one of which, the Florida Forever fund, is getting only $15 million in this fiscal year compared with the $300 million the program had been getting every year.
Cornell said some landowners did not want to be identified at this point. The ones they did identify included Collier Enterprises, Sunniland Family Limited Partnership and Alico, the company run by state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
While supporting the idea of expanding the refuge, Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida questioned using taxpayer dollars to pay for land where the owners have already agreed to give up their development rights.
"Should they be allowed to double-dip?" she asked.
She also pointed out that getting the owners to agree to sell isn't as hard as actually closing a fair deal, explaining, "We approached many of these land owners years ago and they said sure they'd be willing to sell — for the right price."