Paradise Crushed

A lush idyllic chunk of the Everglades was transformed by bulldozers and a huge tree-eating juggernaut

Amassing property -- Bellman became an expert at that. Today, he owns a five-bedroom house on a large lot in Broward County's Southwest Ranches, a three-bedroom house on two acres near Fort Myers, a three-bedroom house in the tiny Tamiami Trail outpost of Ochopee, and a newer hunting camp in the Fakahatchee Strand that he's deeded to his daughter. He's also building a $645,000 townhouse in Boynton Beach and buying a $450,000 home in Palm Beach County near Wellington.

He is a partner in Climatrol Corp., a Hialeah-based company that manufactures and installs screened enclosures and aluminum railings. It's no small irony that Bellman earned big bucks from the very sort of suburban sprawl that forever changed his beloved Fakahatchee. He's worth a lot. "I can't say how much he's worth," says long-time friend Frank Denninger, "but the guy doesn't want for nothing."

From top: The home fries in the early '70s on the boom of the tree crusher they vowed to destroy; Ralph Bellman, graying at the edges but radical still; Bellman and Rudy Lutz's hunting camp in the Fakahatchee; Judy Bellman has made the place look homey
From top: The home fries in the early '70s on the boom of the tree crusher they vowed to destroy; Ralph Bellman, graying at the edges but radical still; Bellman and Rudy Lutz's hunting camp in the Fakahatchee; Judy Bellman has made the place look homey

As the 1970s dawned, the Hialeah boys still had it pretty good in the Fakahatchee. Bellman and Rudy Lutz improved their original camp by covering the exterior with brown roofing shingles and attaching a front porch with a corrugated tin roof. In front of the camp lay a knee-deep pond of cypress, popash, and pond apple.

Bellman's second wife, Judy, donated a favorite flowered sofa bed. The couple also stuck a double bed inside. They hung pots and pans and cups and utensils on hooks over a sink linked to a hand pump that pulled fresh water from the ground. There was a charming, red-washed, wooden kitchen table. Rustic and homey.

At the crack of dawn during the cool months, the boys would be off on the hunt. They learned how to track a deer's bubbles through the swamp, how to spot and follow a trail of plants that had been nibbled, how to sneak up on a buck without their scent giving them away. Judy, the couple's six children, and anybody else who dropped in would hang around the camp, gardening, watching, and just visiting. Judy had no use for hunting, but she loved the delicate coolness of the cypress-shaded glades, the fresh water, and, above all, the plants. She had her husband build large trays on which she laid orchids and ferns, stuff she brought in weekly from forays to Dade County nurseries. She placed them near the pond in front of the camp, wound them into the trees, made the place pretty with plants.

Frank Denninger, a bandy-legged Hialeah boy of few words who loved camping and hunting, would make it to the camp whenever he was home on leave from the U.S. Air Force. At the time, his day job was fixing damaged B-52 bombers in Thailand. But like his old pal Bellman, his obsession was hunting deer.

While Bellman and Lutz and their friends enjoyed the weekend hideaway, GAC continued preparing its huge Golden Gate residential development, warning the guys to stay out of the area. Lutz took that as a sign that the game in Golden Gate was better. "That's the way a kid thinks, you know," he says. One day during hunt season, he hiked west from the camp. The land was much like the dense Fakahatchee of old. The cypress was thick; there were wetgrass prairies, large oak hammocks, islands of cabbage palm and saw palmetto, and large stands of pine trees -- longleaf and slash. As he slogged through the muck and the woods, Lutz unexpectedly encountered a huge mound of dirt. He climbed to the top. The view stunned him.

"I walked into this giant area that had been completely cleared," Lutz says.

He hustled back to the camp. Bellman remembers Lutz's arrival. "You should see the hunt camp someone's building out there!" he told them. "There's a runway for an airplane. It's going to be huge!" They figured somebody high up and beyond wealthy must be setting up a supercamp. "That's how dumb we were," Bellman laughs.

Bellman, Denninger, Lutz, Charlie Cowart, and whoever else was around climbed onto a swamp buggy and powered through the prairie grass to scope out the newcomer.

"Then we understood what was happening," Bellman recalls ruefully.

The tree crusher symbolized it for the men. There it sat in the middle of a huge oak hammock as the late afternoon sun angled over the landscape. A gigantic piece of construction machinery, the tree crusher weighed 55 tons and stood two stories high. Its overhead boom would tear into treetops while cleats at its base would grab a tree and rip it up by the roots. All around this monster machine, the land had been stripped of vegetation to the bare ground, leaving muck to bake in the sun.

As the friends stared in awe, a construction superintendent swooped up in a swamp buggy. Busted. They acted all innocent and quizzed him about the machinery. The superintendent explained that the tree crusher could clear a 50-foot-wide swath through eight miles of wilderness every day. It would take down stands of giant oaks, toppling their ancient trunks like twigs. Seven or eight bulldozers would follow behind, clearing debris.

After the superintendent left, the boys explored the area, devastated by what they saw. "Usually when there is a clear-cut, there is a harvest," Lutz explains from his Vermont home. "But they were going into this giant stand of oak, and they were just destroying that hammock. They would push the logs off to the side and burn them rather than even just harvesting them for firewood. They just destroyed it."

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