How's this for a 50th birthday present for Everglades National Park: One of Florida's most powerful landowners is proposing to expand its oil drilling north of the park's borders.
The Collier family of Naples has told environmental groups and federal regulators that it plans to seek more than two dozen oil exploration permits in and near the Big Cypress National Preserve, where the family owns mineral rights that it values at about $1-billion.
The family has been trying to swap those rights to the federal government in exchange for land at former military bases in Orlando and California. So far, no deal has materialized and federal appraisers have said the untapped Big Cypress oil is worth far less than the Colliers say.
Do the Colliers really intend to drill? Or are they trying to get the government's attention and drive up the price?
Environmentalists said this week that they don't know. But some worry that the drilling could interfere with hopes of eventually restoring natural water flows into the Everglades.
"It would mean major impacts," said Roderick Tirrell, conservation chairman of the Broward County Sierra Club. "Drilling wells produces a hell of a lot of pollution."
Tirrell said early estimates indicate that the Colliers' plans would require 95 miles of lime-rock roads covering 173 acres, while the drilling pads could take up an additional 59 acres. That's not to mention the noise and pollution from the drilling, some of which would take place in prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther, Tirrell said.
The family has told the National Park Service that it plans to seek as many as 28 drilling permits, said Patrick Kenney, a resource management specialist at Big Cypress.
The Colliers applied to the park service Oct. 9 for the first permit. It would allow one exploratory well 5 miles south of Alligator Alley about midway through the preserve, Kenney said.
Tirrell said other proposed drilling sites include locations in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, just west of Big Cypress, and in the preserve's south end, close to Everglades National Park.
The Colliers already operate about 30 wells at drilling pads near the preserve's east and northwest borders. The proposed wells would be the first to be drilled outside those established areas since at least the early 1980s, Kenney said.
The Collier family has been a major force in Southwest Florida since the 1920s when banker and railroad man Barron Collier bought a million acres, began construction of the Tamiami Trail and got a county named after himself.
Congress bought much of the family's land before creating the 575,000-acre preserve in 1974, but the federal government didn't buy the Colliers' oil and gas rights. The family's high price probably would have killed the deal, said Hobe Sound environmentalist Nat Reed, who advocated the land purchase as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Interior Department.
Reed said the rights still could be too expensive, depending on what price the Colliers demand.
"I guarantee you it's not worth $1-billion," Reed said, adding that drilling "is not the end of the world." Federal regulators probably could limit the environmental damage, he said.
The Colliers have offered to surrender their drilling rights in return for federal land worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The sites under discussion include the Orlando Naval Training Center and various closed bases in California, including the Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay.
In a similar swap concluded last year, the Colliers gave up 108,000 acres in and near the Big Cypress in return for 68 acres of federal land in downtown Phoenix. Of the land the family gave up, 83,000 acres was added to the Big Cypress preserve.