“Come on down and buy a piece of paradise; live like a rich man among the palms and warm sunshine of South Florida, all for just pennies”. This was the flavor of the advertising blitz of the Gulf American Corporation (GAC) targeting gullible and foolish northerners in the 1960’s. The Rosen brothers of Baltimore had previously become wealthy hawking an anti-baldness tonic containing lanolin or wool wax. “Have you ever seen a bald sheep”, those adds claimed, and apparently worked. In South Florida they bought 500,000 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp and turned a $125,000 investment into $115,000,000 by selling thousands of small lots, many underwater and un-buildable.
The urge to “drain the swamp” has been the goal of Florida developers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but GAC’s plan was the most ambitious. It created the 175 square mile Golden Gate Estates, the “world’s largest subdivision” criss-crossed by rough limestone roads and 180 miles of canals attempting to drain the standing water to the Gulf of Mexico. Many unsuspecting buyers bought their lots over the telephone sight unseen, while others were flown over theirs in the dry season. Twenty-nine thousand souls were duped before the extent of the deceit became apparent. This story is just one chapter in the larger history of the water management and development affecting the Florida Everglades, from its near destruction to more recent restoration. Read “The Swamp”, by Michael Grunwald, 2006, for the complete story.
By the 1970’s the real estate scam became clear and Collier County realized it could not support the development with road maintenance and a central water and sewerage system. In 1978 the developer filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to deceptive sales practices. The only substantial development was along the northern edge on higher and drier land. By this time the draining canals had lowered the water table by four feet and the flora and fauna were suffering. The majority of the land remained as undeveloped swamp but now the limestone roads were acting as runways for DC 3’s bringing drugs into Florida from the Caribbean and South America.
As part of the larger program to save the Everglades the state and federal governments began a complex buy-back program, bailing out the bilked landowners and then creating the Fakahatchee and Picayune Strand State Parks on their land. www.floridastateparks.org
My birding colleague Mel likes to explore these “off the beaten track” sites and the Fakahatchee and adjacent Picayune parks certainly qualify. We saw only 2 or 3 birders all day. It was a clear morning when we pulled through the entrance and immediately saw signs and a ranger warning us about high water on the limestone roads. It had been a wet winter and spring in South Florida. A SUV driver coming out, however said it was passable so with a sense of adventure we pushed on. Ten miles later we had seen no water, but plenty of Florida waders, turkeys, and Red-shouldered Hawks. I’ve never seen so many Gray Catbirds. The cypress swamp, Sabal palms, and low shrubs must be their perfect habitat.
Finally rounding a bend we came across a large “puddle” covering the road. It was about 50 feet across and there was no way to go around it. It seemed shallow and was not flowing water, so we pressed on. Halfway through Mel’s SUV dropped down into a deep hole. With water splashing over the hood he kept up the momentum and we pulled out on the other side with a sigh of relief.
Thinking the worst of it was over we continued on, but soon found more high water as far as the eye could see “down the road less traveled”. Now there was no turning back so we continued heading north, birding from the vehicle somewhat like an inland pelagic trip. Remember, these limestone roads and swamp were the homesites marketed by the Rosen brothers a few years earlier.
Birding adventures such as this day in southwest Florida are part of what makes this hobby so appealing and each trek so memorable. Beautiful wilderness, fellowship with other birders, and observing and photographing the birds; what a treat. Put these parks on your list, but go in the dry season or try to find a “Mel”, a good driver with a large SUV, before attempting the high water.