During World War II, south Florida's ancient cypress strands were heavily logged for shipbuilding. The lumber became crucial for rebuilding Europe once the war was over. After 1948, the mass production of chainsaws in North America spelled doom for most of the old-growth cypress, some over 700 years old. Once the trees disappeared, so did the lumber mills, leaving only scars of old logging trams and remnant swamps.
In the western section of the Big Cypress Basin lies the Picayune Strand, formerly a mosaic of pine flatwoods, dwarf cypress sloughs, and wet prairies formed by the broad flow of shallow water gradually moving south. Though this land was less affected by the logging, the unnatural succession of development swallowed nearly 175 square miles of western Collier County. Jack and Leonard Rosen of the Gulf American Land Corp. paid $100 per acre, digging 180 miles of canals to drain the area and build 800 miles of road. They hoped to create the largest subdivision in the world at that time, selling 18,000 lots of just over an acre. This giant bank of real estate inventory would net the brothers around $900 an acre, with most of the swampland sold sight unseen. Buyers would travel down to see the "other side" of southwest Florida, only to discover that many of their lots suffered seasonal high water, despite the canals and other anti-flooding efforts. The Florida Land Sales Board found the company guilty of fraud, but the damage had been done.
Much of the 80,000 acres known as the "South Blocks" was left unused, though the disturbance took its toll:
Canals funnel fresh water straight to the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic Ocean. This water would've naturally been filtered through sheet flow over marshes, mangroves, and estuarine systems. Instead, it rushes straight out to the FakaUnion Bay. It also is directed away from the western Ten Thousand Islands, creating an overly saline (salty) environment there.
Disturbances such as road beds also affect hydrology, disrupting the natural mosaic and providing a foothold for invasive plants. These invaders affect the natural fire and water cycles of the forest, making traditional "old growth" to become scarcer. Uplands become hydric and wetlands dry too quickly.
With partial development and a lack of police presence, nefarious characters used and abused the land. Poachers, dumpers, and drug smugglers often used the vacant roads. Abandoned lots left isolated "playgrounds" for unregulated off-road vehicles, namely swamp buggies.
Beginning in 1985, parcels of land were purchased under the Conservation and Recreation Lands program, known as "Save Our Everglades". State and federal agencies had finally identified the need to properly restore the hydrology. This was a massive undertaking, working with 17,000 separate landowners to acquire the land. By May of 1995, the Picayune Strand State Forest was officially named. The Florida Forest Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District, US Fish and Wildlife, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and additional local stakeholders are currently working together to restore sheet flow, flatten roads, regulate recreational activities, maintain prescribed burn regimes, as well as many other restoration activities.
The Picayune Strand State Forest is also a key wildlife management area. Its upland areas are vital habitats for large mammal species such as black bears, whitetail deer, and the elusive Florida panther. Any remaining "old growth" pine stands are essential for the remaining population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, a critically endangered species. Osceola turkeys that make their home across the gridded landscape are coveted by native predators as well as human hunters.
The Picayune Nature Club (PNC) was founded by Wes Wilkins in 2011. A resident of a forest inholding and environmental activist, Wes has witnessed the many changes in Picayune Strand, and dedicated himself to sustainable living, wildlife conservation, and improving the human relationship with the natural world.
With the help of biologist Ian Easterling, the PNC is dedicated to creating a community of environmental stakeholders. Our goal is to inspire residents and tourists alike to emotionally invest in the restoration of this beautiful place, protecting land and planting trees whose shade we may never rest under.
After the plugging of many miles of canals and the grading of much of Picayune Strand's roads, wildlife is returning to the forest. Participate in the Picayune Nature Club to see the resilience of the western Everglades and build hope in protecting our local wildlife.