In eastern Collier County, where hardwood hammocks, cypress domes and wet prairies provide ideal habitat for an abundance of wildlife, lies the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge has had little public access aside from two short hiking trails since it was established in 1989.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to open more access to the refuge with a proposed visitor plan. The decision leaves some glad the public can connect with the outdoors and others worried the access will damage wildlife habitat.
“I believe it’s more of a modest plan and more regulated than most of our public lands in the area,” Kevin Godsea, project leader for FWS’s Southwest Florida National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said. “That’s kind of what we gathered from the public as we were scoping.”
Godsea manages seven refuges in the area from Ten Thousand Islands north to J.N. “Ding” Darling on Sanibel.
Back in 2011, Godsea said an extensive public process went forward to put together a visioning document for the 567 wildlife refuges across the U.S. Some of those recommendations dealt with public access and visitor services planning as well as hunting and fishing areas.
The proposed plan for the 25,560-acre panther refuge will, among other changes, establish new hiking/biking trails, open Pistol Pond for fishing, allow limited turkey hunting and open the area for commercial video and photography access.
“We don’t really anticipate many impacts from people bank fishing on site there,” Godsea said. “As far as some other uses, most all of those we proposed through a special use permit in which it won’t be wide open. It’ll be more controlled and a little more regulated.”
Throughout the 10-year public process, the community largely said they would like more access, Godsea said.
“That’s kind of where this plan originated from and going back over the course of those 10 years, we’ve been kind of looking at this and seeing what is appropriate and compatible with the refuge mission and why we were established,” he said.
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said the proposed plan does not stand up to the purpose of the refuge: to protect panther habitat.
“As they go through each proposed activity (FWS) acknowledges harm for each one, but says it won’t have a significant impact,” Schwartz said. “But cumulatively I think it’s going to have a major effect on the refuge and panthers.”
Pointing to a recently approved town near the refuge, Schwartz said development pressure outside the refuge as well as the proposed visitor plan warrants, at the least, a deeper look at the potential environmental impacts.
FWS conducted an environmental assessment that looked at potential effects the proposed plan would have on wildlife and habitat, but Schwartz said a more thorough environmental impact statement should be completed.
“It’s a much more rigorous, time-consuming process that looks at a range of reasonable alternatives,” he said. “All they did was come up with two alternatives: all or nothing.”
While Schwartz said the proposed plan contradicts the purpose of the refuge, Mike Elfenbein said it will help connect people to the outdoors.
“The most important thing is (the plan) is good because it creates a bond and relationship and grows love for our natural resources, so people are more inclined to conserve those resources,” Elfenbein said.
Elfenbein, a member of the Everglades Coordinating Council and Future of Hunting in Florida, said he understands people’s concerns, but it boils down to a disconnect from nature.
“A lot of public land in Florida remains inaccessible to the public, to bird watchers and kayakers simply because the process to make those lands available is so tedious,” he said. “This land should have been made available for access seven years ago, but because of the process, it took that long to get us there.”
There’s a misconception about what hunting really is, Elfenbein said.
“It’s important to note that hunters have always been the leading contributors to public conservation, to purchasing land for conservation and funding management of those lands,” he said.
Amber Crooks, an environmental policy specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said instead of focusing on visitor access, the refuge should look at funding more scientific research such as land management and other areas.
“From what I understand from staff, they want to invite more people so they can see the magic and the beauty of the refuge, which is understandable,” Crooks said. “But given how important and sensitive it is, we’ve got to defer to a cautionary principle and, given the threats around it, protect it.”
One big example of those threats, Crooks said, was the increased pressures from development and traffic.
“Given all that and given the founding purpose of the panther refuge being focused on providing habitat and sanctuary for the endangered Florida panther, I think (the plan) should be scaled back to provide that true sanctuary,” she said.
Godsea said FWS acknowledges that there will be more neighbors from more developments in the area.
“Let’s plan for that because we know those people are going to want to utilize public lands for various uses,” he said. “Let’s put a plan together to plan for that growth and use there. This would allow us to regulate what’s appropriate and compatible for this land versus other public lands.”
Richard Martinez, south vice chair of the Florida Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said he is excited about the possibility of the refuge opening up for a limited turkey hunt.
“The fact they’re proposing a limited draw hunt for this refuge would be a great opportunity to be out in the woods and experience solitude, something harder and harder to find in Big Cypress,” he said.
Martinez said there’s a misconception that human presence in a place like the refuge has a disruptive effect.
“In my experience, I don’t think it does,” he said. “When people use a place and go into that place and fall in love, they’re more inclined to stand up and protect it.”
Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said she appreciates the opportunity the service is presenting to allow people to connect with the refuge, but has one major concern: oversight.
“Sufficient staff and robust funding is required to effectively implement the visitor service plan such that is being proposed,” Budd said.
Expanding public use without sufficient oversight could have unintended consequences, she said. Those impacts could include unintentional impacts to the native vegetation, wildlife harassment and littering that could threaten the quality of wildlife habitat.
“The way they presented these recreational opportunities is a way to connect with the refuge and the Federation appreciates that,” she said. “At the core of our organization, it’s just doing it the right way and ensuring those opportunities have sufficient oversight to ensure the habitat itself that was purchased to recover endangered panther is kept in that standard.”
The refuge has two full-time staff on station with an additional four firefighters who work throughout Florida’s refuges, Godsea said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does provide law enforcement help during hunting season, and FWS has six officers throughout the state. The turkey hunts on the refuge would be short, and Godsea said an upcoming reorganization in the nation’s refuge system would enable a correction in terms of managing staff.
“We have the same concern in terms of number of staffing,” Godsea said. “Ten years ago, we had 12 staff, now we’re down to six. It is a concern, but we look at that short-term. We do think there will be additional funding for staff in the near future.”
This article by Karl Schneider was first published by The Naples Daily News on 7 July 2021. Lead Image: A female Florida panther trips a camera trap set up by USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA photographer Andrew West at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.
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