The Picayune Nature Club (PNC) is a non-profit organization formed for people to connect and share in the appreciation of the ecology, plants, and wildlife of Picayune Strand State Forest. An important piece of the largest ecosystem restoration project in the history of the world; The Everglades Restoration.
(Florida Non-profit corporation, N 13000000325)
I am a nature lover and a Florida architect for 30 years, a naturalist and conservationist even longer, with a core belief in placing a high value on living naturally and beneficially with wildlife. We are all in our world as humans, existing in a position as the stewards of our planet, to do something positive every day. Nature presents a side of life beyond our scope, and with all the controversy and frustration surrounding differing views and climate change and global policies and lousy leaders…
Picayune Strand is here for people with a calling for the wilderness. It is smack dab on the edge of the Everglades with almost nothing but swamp to Miami. Much like the shores of the gulf, the other side is someplace else far away. This is Naples’ backyard and has been for generations.
The Picayune Strand State Forest has gone through everything 80,000 acres could ever go so quickly. It went from the pristine wilderness to total carpetbagger exploitation, to now the atonement of over a billion dollars to bring it back and here we are seeing it through from the start to the end. It's special to get out and recreate and enjoy while at the same time working out and giving in to making a place for yourself in a forest so accessible in many ways. Spending time here doing things a true steward might do is supported, honored, and promoted by our club. The PNC is a resource to help our native animals live wild. And it's a positive place too, as everything needed is here and gets better as time moves on- A rarity in a natural realm surrounded by so many new buildings and road developments.
A favorite axiom is "What's good for the panther, is good for people".
Very true, as the same things that degrade the lives of our animals also degrade the quality of our lives, especially in the long run. It's because of the Endangered Species Act, it is the Florida panther we should all thank for much of nature still around in South Florida. Picayune is no exception. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA or "The Act"; 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.) is the primary law in the United States for protecting imperiled species.
PRINCIPLES OF THE PNC
As an activist against uncontrolled urban sprawl, me and my wife Janneke Huber discovered the forest when it was known as the "South Blocks" of Golden Gate Estates. We became instantly enchanted with the frontier aspect and freedom. A very unique and very old-school American place. Janneke was reminded of the wildness by the strong smell of the native slash pines and all those cool pine needles. In 1991 we bought a 10-acre parcel in south Belle Meade against the advice of many as a lost cause and built our own sustainably designed home which we are still living in and around and working on to this day. Little did they know…
The best part was nobody cared about us being here. People came here for many things, mostly recreational or spiritual, and wondering about others they don't know, was not one of them. We had our dreams met here too, and have become stakeholders, living in the natural Florida landscape not harming, but enhancing the place with our presence. It was easy here actually. So much to fix.
Many labeled as "environmentalists" believe that people came from somewhere beyond the galaxy and that a mere presence harms nature. Nature can return very quickly if you noticed and that's particularly obvious in South Florida. Technology constantly gets better and does more with less and less and human impact becomes more and more mitigatable, too. If the majority can see the value, then societal sacrifice can happen for a better result and endless returns. We're used to that and It's often just a matter of perspective and can happen instantly.
This brings forth another axiom to consider; "An Environmentalist is someone that will make a personal sacrifice for the sake of the natural environment."
Too many of our environmental leaders make zero sacrifices. Many tend to exploit and It hurts an environmental cause greatly. The main part of the PNC's general course is to provide an outlet for grassroots efforts for nonpolitical people to make a real difference in place of counting on someone else to generate the initiative. To lead on our own. There is no profit and no pay given up for anything to anyone other than what anybody wants to help out with and in their way. Donating money and membership fees are not required but do cover some of the costs of materials and minor expenses and permits, not much out of the PNC account actually, which is entirely for the forest and entirely non-profit. We are not political. The club has no political affiliations and will not endorse any political agenda. It's about the appreciation of a great place from above the treetops to below the cap rock.
There are varying shades of green depending often on the angle of one's viewpoint and limitations and this is understood and appreciated as we're all different. Anybody that highly appreciates and greatly values Picayune Strand State Forest is very welcome to join us.
HISTORY OF THE STRAND
Beginning in 1964, parcels of land throughout the state of Florida were purchased for cultural and environmental purposes under several subsequent funding mechanisms voted and backed, approved by Florida voters, and deployed by our legislators. Even the Feds got involved and purchased the Big Cypress preserve in 1972. Many think the preserve applies just for the swamp, but it's also meant to reflect the fact it was local hunters, the fishing industry, and Florida conservationists (to name a few) that supported the bill(s) to ultimate success which also intended for the preservation of traditional recreational uses, such as for hunting, or, airboats and camping.
One local hero, known as Mel Finn, a Miami Attorney and conservationist, worked for decades to achieve land protection for Fakahatchee Strand (Between Big Cypress and Picayune Strand.) and managed to finally succeed in 1974 - 3 years after his death. Fakahatchee Strand, Florida's largest State Park, bordering on the entire east side of Picayune, was born. This park's success was the impetus for repairing the big, abandoned, speculative subdivision to its immediate west.
Florida is the #1 state for public land acquisition. Over 10 million acres are set aside for nature and the protection of wildlife. 30% of the total Florida Land area.
Why? 3 main reasons:
1. So much growth happens so fast that a lot of people notice how quickly the degradation advances and want natural land protections and less sprawl.
2. The Tourist industry relies on a healthy natural environment.
3. Inherent efficiencies such as Government savings with less sprawl as growth do not pay for themselves. Developers like the amenities, as it helps in sales.
Citizens of Florida now understood the effects of growth on what seemed to be an indestructible and endless ecosystem. The living organism known as the Everglades was truly dying and many parts were realized as gone forever. Not only that, but our dying reefs were irrefutably suffering also from the negative effects of development and the science was there to prove it. It was all about water quality.
Now the work began in earnest and was continually funded and lobbied and shepherded by many public groups and individuals. From the Sierra Club preservationists to the 1000 Friends of Florida, advocates of smart growth. The requirements for healthy wetlands, the retention of runoff, and dealing with all of the many tangible issues that have to be addressed fully for that reality to happen, were understood. Growth control groups and environmental agencies were spurring the State to regulate more and buy more land. When the politics came through, voters decided to allocate funds for buying sensitive lands, while at the same time those in charge of permitting, were promising a pro-business approach and not to heavily regulate land development. This went along just fine until the growth sprawled out into the places nobody cared about other than State funded land buyers. Just when the south blocks were beginning to be seriously coveted by local builders and investors for development; The movement for Everglades restoration began to gain steam. It was a perfect storm of development vs animal habitat and the water quality for the Everglades and Florida bay.
The panther was winning. It was the County vs the State vs the Federal government with the ESA giving the Feds the authority to stop the County from building an airport, installing a landfill (The current one was stinking up the town.), and permits for PUD in the South Blocks. As far as the airport, The City could not expand it either, although the communities built around it created strong political pressures, the FAA came in using federal laws to prevent restrictions intended by neighbors that wanted the airport gone. The noise was too much, and the tax base created from developing the now very valuable airport property, was a big incentive, too.
Big jets had to land in Fort Myers and other planes to Immokalee.
Leadership for these groups proved a formidable advocate for the airport, due mainly to ownership of any number of Boewing 747s. The county was looking at all of the new tax bases for the South Block development too. Luckily, the ESA and panther won out again. Locals became furious, with many were advocating publically to shoot panthers on sight. During that time, community members held the mantra of the Three S's: shoot, shovel, and shut the **** up.
When I look back, there was much angst on my part they would succeed. Another Lehigh Acres would be here and the wildlife left with very little to live on. Not to mention, the further damage to the adjacent estuaries of the 10,000 islands directly south.
Alas, despite the wishes of many, Texas cougars (8-collared males) were brought into the Big Cypress Basin by scientists as the population was so very low; The feline leukemia was killing panthers and inbreeding was a major problem. They would be gone soon, right before our eyes. So something had to be done by biologists. Before long, the numbers went from about 30 statewide, to estimates of 100 or more breeding cats in about a dozen years. Even though the wild lands can only sustain far fewer, our keystone species was rebounding against all odds.
The eight original cougars survived and all were re-captured and taken back to Texas. Although the year they spent here was a very tough one for them, those males did their job and improved the gene pool. I believe it was a huge success for science and conservation.
Picayune was ruined environmentally as far as anybody with development interests could tell and all those in the know locally agreed. Although it was not logged out like Fakahatchee, it was burned out. Badly. Engineers in Maryland designed the giant subdivision, now owned by Gulf American Land Corporation, as a real estate land scam and was drained by a grid of drainage canals direct into the estuary and then built 250 miles of roads and ditches throughout to access the thousands of 2 1/2 acre lots on the parched land. The constructed drainage design upset the delicate balance of fire and water.
Once seasonal wildfires now blazed all year round and burned intensely and uncontrollably, as many upland plants have increased and moved into the cypress sloughs when burning, torched up everything. Millions of burned cypress trees died and fell dead littering the woods everywhere, and still do in many spots. Plus to make matters worse, melaleuca and Brazilian pepper trees, extremely aggressive exotic invasives, moved in without very little opposition and along with the fires and lack of standing water where it should be, assisted with the environmental disaster. But those going there were unabated. The place was still great and free. Again though, it was the presence of the Florida panther (along with the Endangered Species act and private groups with lawyers) that enabled the US Fish and Wildlife enforcement ability to control land use for the protection of panthers. No longer under the full control of the Florida Real Estate and construction industry.
The early design plans for restoration were very modest and designed locally by SFWMD engineers. $12 - $24 million, were the estimates for those early designs except for one crazy plan that would cost over $200 million. It is a real laugher. Muchuch later when all the funds from the feds came through, the planners went for the full restoration and then some, which I think is coming to the billion-dollar mark soon. The Everglades Restoration was now approved and ready for the contracts to be let. However, the G.H. Bush administration was not on board and delayed the funding.
Ironically, Jeb Bush used the Florida Land trust funds to pay for the "save Our Everglades" land acquisition and phase 1 construction on the east side.
The delayed Federal money would come eventually and do when President Obama got it approved and budgeted through congress.
The first thing to complete was the buyout. The Florida Wildlife Federation was tasked with procuring those lands for the South Florida Water Management District. Unfortunately, they were going way too slow as the profit-sharing agreement, where they could keep anything above a per acre price the state had set. The low offer we not motivating any willing sellers. The Governor took control and had the DEP take over the purchase negotiations and when all the ready and willing buyers were dealt with, eminent domain took out the rest. Only those with property in South Belle Meade (such as the unplatted land west of Miller Blvd) did not fall into any condemnation proceedings. They decided instead to put a levy past our tiny neighborhood, as they would have to pay market prices and all legal costs for everyone and nowhere near those condemned prices. Many inholders are now developers that bought a lot of the available land in Belle Mede and used the development units on another site elsewhere in the county. Many complained, but the Governor got it done and built the first phase. Eventually, the rest of the restoration was designed, engineered, and overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. Which now included 3 pump stations, and a major time and cost delay due to political and development interests that legally challenged plans for using the traditional sheet flows. Now those flows had to be contained and velocity increased and diverted and additional water had to be pumped from sub-surface wells and distributed evenly by spreader canals. An immense job consisting of three new giant pump stations is now completed and operational. Phase I was reimbursed back to the State of Florida.
Picayune Strand was initially way down on the buy list, but local advocates and the immense pressure to develop brought it up high on the list and now the big money was there. It was Gov. Jeb Bush answering the call to get it done even if his brother's administration would not.
Again, the concept behind Picayune Strand is not one of just preservation. It falls under the management practices of the Dept. of Agriculture and managed by The Florida Forest Service, and owned by the Water Management District. Not preservationists by any means. FFS had little to do with the actual construction work and suffered along with everyone else during the intensive long-term construction process still ongoing, but nearly done. But of course, the greatest supporters of the efforts did come from the FFS people.
Hank Graham, the original superintendent for forestry, felt strongly about wildlife having a permanent home safe from urbanization and certain annihilation. He selected the name "Picayune Strand". A respected leader and highly regarded in Tallahassee and by citizens that knew him. He very much wanted to stay through to the end but eventually had to retire.
I would estimate the job is at least 85% complete and about ten years behind the originally expected schedule. Maybe 3 or 4 more years are yet to complete. The primary role of Forestry is to help control fire and manage the land and visitors and maintain and protect the woods to the best of their abilities. The Fish and Wildlife Commission enforces the laws and makes arrests and keeps out criminals.
Everyone, from top to bottom, including government officials and employees, falls under their watch and jurisdiction.
The Picayune Strand State Forest is a wildlife management area. A sanctuary for animals and the hunting part of that management is strictly a privilege for the good health of the wildlife. Its upland areas are vital habitats for large mammal species such as black bears, whitetail deer, gopher tortoises, rattlesnakes, indigo snakes, and the elusive Florida panther. Which BTW, will show itself here in the wild to people probably more than anywhere, especially since there is nowhere else really. (The top spot for Florida panthers at this time is Okaloacoochee State Forest in Hendry county.) And much was also restored over there too, but nothing like Picayune Strand.
Any remaining "old-growth" pine stands are essential for the resident population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, a critically endangered species. Several colonies were located here artificially from somewhere else. Part of a taking/relocation permit for land developers. Mitigation. Osceola turkeys, big blue-headed and bearded gobblers, native and abundant with all their jakes and jennies, also make their home across the gridded floodplain and are coveted by native predators as well as human hunters.
This brings us to another reason the Dept of Agriculture manages this forest, it is because Forest use is not as stringently controlled as that for a state park, and intended to give back something to the public that supported and paid for this restoration and recreational use is a right (NOT ORV's though) granted to the public and recorded in the courthouse when the county sold the right of ways to the state. (See the exhibit "C" part of the agreement) Another component of the complex political story is told very schematically here.
I can say before the FFS came in, fires occurred almost daily in the dry season and trash dumping and poachers operated with impunity. Random shootings could happen anywhere and in all directions. Plus there were squatters. Some even built full homes. Off-road vehicles were rampant and as development progressed elsewhere off-site, all the riders kicked off those lands and started coming out here and the numbers were approaching the hundreds of vehicles rutting and grinding out their wheels with thumb power on any given weekend and all holidays. The gasoline junkies ruled. The trash and destruction of ATVs and other 4-wheel drive chaos were getting ridiculous. But the Forestry sat back and took lots of pictures and filed reports and the aerials didn't lie and self-regulation was proven to be impossible. They even took the names and addresses of the riders under the guise of future special use permits forthcoming but in reality, it was to be part of a long mailing list for sending out legal notices instead, informing all of the official eviction dates for all ORV's and users would be ticketed (Court appearance required) for trespassing with an offender's vehicle confiscated. Although it all ended in just one night technically, it took law enforcement years to get the hardcore ORV trespassers gone permanently. There was even a mini-portable jail on-site during this time to help, as fleeing and eluding included an arrest and jail visit. The sheriff's deputies were even helping and having fun.
It goes on constantly still, and the FWC officers continue to keep getting it done. There are plenty of places here to drive for licensed tagged vehicles on designated roads. Officers take no excuses from those caught off the road illegally.
Sometimes they are wrong, so bring along a recent access road map available online at the Picayune Strand Forest Website and an entrance pass.
THE CLUB'S CREATION
The Picayune Nature Club (PNC) was founded 2011. An Architect and environmental activist, I hadwitnessed the many changes in Picayune Strand and dedicated myself to sustainable living and development, wildlife conservation, and improving the human relationship with the natural world. Changing people's hearts by opening this world with things like creating Snake Pit camp headquarters as a place for hikers and bikers to come. A place just for them.
So much has been closed off since the restoration work began. Many people had a major stake in this land and a place known as "Bad Luck Prairie" was their home base. The 'T' handle campground was wonderful, and there was an extensive exhibition of "backwoods recycling and engineering" every weekend over there. They loved the South Blocks and made it a very unique and interesting place. A place for families. The culture was very different. Like something from a Mad Max movie except everyone is friendly. Homemade vehicles known as swamp buggies were invented here at the birthplace. After WW2 many veterans stayed permanently and old model T's with airplane tires were one of the first designs used. Picayune Strand was their culture's last stand and the last place free and not controlled by any government agencies and the sheriff barely noticed.
Beer was currency, and no Yankees were around. A Southerner's paradise. Instant party whenever anybody broke down or got stuck. It was some of the greatest of times in the middle of nowhere out in the Florida swampland. I felt sad that it left but hoped a nonmotorized culture would ensue with the same "ownership" the Gladesmen had for Picayune Strand back then.
Swamp buggy riding in the South Blocks and Bad Luck was probably some of the best fun that can ever be had for anyone with a pulse that loves the swamp. It was well known on the prairie that "There's a hole there for everyone no matter what you're driving." No buggy was invincible.
Change is certain, and this time it could go in a different path than the usual Real Estate industry's highest and best-use format. There was no other choice. The damage was just too much for this delicate ecosystem to thrive. Even now, we must remain diligent, as that could change also overnight without any protection.
The interface between people and nature is a most important part of the PNC's mission to gain balance with nature and to maintain that balance. The aspect of life quality here, among the trees, as compared to living amongst the traffic is a key reason for our motivation to share this alternative approach with others.
Bike riding has always been a major part of life for many and an asset to society. One of the greatest machines ever invented. Not that many bikes were out here as in the days of the South Blocks. Like none. Most people were truly afraid to be here. Nobody. Nothing but lonely scary highway-type roads with gravelly overgrown side streets everywhere. 250 miles worth. Plus canals and bridges. All ours and ours alone. Nobody had MTB bikes then, and those skinny-wheeled road bikes couldn't last more than a few miles on the very gritty sun-baked/rain-ground asphalt roads of the time. There were so-called hybrid-type bikes that could be ridden everywhere. But more as exercise while touring around for an adventure.
When all the ORVs were kicked out, it was lonelier than ever, though peaceful. Wildlife came back during this time. After the mob and before the construction started. The old off-road trails and single tracks remained and were numerous and as a full-time user of the woods for years should, now I knew them all. So when fat tire bikes came out, and with full suspension no less, I had to get one. My favorite bike of all time. I still ride that everywhere and after about a year, bike riding in Picayune became more fun than ATV riding. The legs become engine pistons and ran on their own. The hands, feet, butt, neck, shoulders, and all the other pains didn't come now for a long time. Bike riding in Picayune Strand was feasible. And this message was carried through to the point of actually getting the trails marked and marketed. Now the bike riders own a place and the job is done in regards to pedals over motorized vehicles.
The Tour de Picayune is a forest-wide bike tour created and sponsored by the PNC for over 12 years now and the Durrwlker Cup, awarded to the Tour de Picayune champion, has a long list of great riders. All winners are remembered and recorded on the engraved list placed on the trophy, every year for the last 12 years, with the 13th annual tour coming up in 2023. We have 3 riders tied at 3 victories each and 3 riders with 1 each. Hundreds of bikers now understand the joy of riding free in the wood and its rewards. great bike rides do not have to be smooth flow trails of high maintenance and high impact and congestion.
Picayune Strand is one of the greatest places in Florida to ride freely cross-country style with the right gear and knowledge of the forest.
After each rainy season, most of the bike trails are lost. Leave no trace here is serious and inherent. But the paths are remembered for each coming year and carried forward by those currently living the tradition onward, with great regard for our plants and animal friends and passed as well. The more experience and knowledge acquired, the more of the countless aspects of the picayune strand, become revealed. The depth and breadth of appreciation of this world expand along with our related inhabitants. A once foreboding place becomes a friendly home of comfort, familiarity, and hospitality.
I have had the good fortune of meeting and knowing people such as biologist Ian Easterling who has been helping Picayune greatly. And other members too, such as Al Frere, the O.G. and very first member that came out for the grand opening of Snake Pit Camp in 2010. He has been a major supporter of the club ever since.
There was also a great person and great rider in his own right, Chris Younger who helped and supported, respected the PNC's goals, and provided superior backup.
Peter Schmidt and Andy Holland both helped by spending some of their valuable time out setting up picnic tables.
Jon Lord is a good friend of Picayune Strand in many ways and a true believer in our cause.
Of course, my wife Janneke Huber, a PNC officer, and co-founder is always there 100% as the final line of dedication and an example of honor and conviction.
After a generation's time of work; The elimination of miles of sizable canals and the removal of nearly all roads, spoil banks, innumerable tons of invasives, trash and debris, old cars, trailers, piles of tires, polluted farm fields, ponds and ditches, structures, fences, gates, bridges, signs, culverts, boat ramps, telephone poles, gun ranges, rock piles, toxic junk piles, pits, etc... in Picayune Strand, is coming to a close. Wildlife has been returning for some time and thriving and It will keep getting better. A definite and extreme difference will happen very soon after the machines are gone. The natural balance will then proceed unimpeded.
We are still here and finally looking forward to that day coming soon.
The PNC is committed to creating a community of environmental stakeholders. Our goal is to inspire residents and tourists alike to emotionally invest in restoring and enhancing this beautiful place, protecting land, and planting trees we may never rest under.