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February 15,2017 - Commentary: Conservation by large tract owners is key
Naples News

By Eric Draper, Executive director, Audubon Florida 4:58 p.m. ET Feb. 13, 2017

A for-sale sign on Immokalee Road near Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary caught my attention a few years ago. The seller offered a square mile of land zoned for 250 houses on land where cattle were still grazing. I wondered how development could have spread so far outside Naples.

Audubon worked with the governor’s office and the landowner to secure the parcel for conservation. But just north of our sanctuary, new owners recently started planning what could be an even bigger development. This concerns us because we once thought the majority of agricultural land in Collier and Lee counties would stay that way — low-density uses maintaining a nice, green boundary.

With nearly 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, the loss of agricultural land and natural areas is occurring at a shocking rate. We are losing open space at a rate of more than a square mile a day.

I was a speaker at the recent opening of the Town of Babcock Ranch — an unusual role for a state environmental leader known for 30 years of land conservation advocacy. My message was that if we can plan for the big pieces of land, before they get carved up, we have a shot at saving some very special places.

Audubon’s preference is public purchase of conservation lands, especially to protect water resources. But that approach has lost favor in Tallahassee and has become an expensive option as land prices rise.

Babcock Ranch, 93,000 acres in Lee and Charlotte counties, offers a good example of an alternative way to achieve conservation. After the death of the patriarch, family members had to decide to sell the ranch and its beautiful natural areas to the state or break it up to be sold to developers. Development would have been like other parts of semi-rural Lee County — 5-acre tracts with dirt roads and few services and schools.

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