Paradise Crushed

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

Says Bellman: "I can never explain what it was like to see massive trees piled up. That was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. Fresh green trees in piles."

"I was dumbfounded," Denninger adds. "I saw a deer lying there, decomposed. I thought, 'Good God, they are going to wipe clear the whole place. '"

They found bird's nests knocked to the ground, dead birds, hatchlings left to die, bucks, does crushed in the debris. Hundreds of dead animals, Bellman recounts. They'd all been taught by older hunters never to shoot a doe -- that's the next generation. The rule was sacrosanct. And never to take more than you could eat. This wanton destruction went against everything they'd learned. "It was horrible," Lutz says.

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

A resolve came over them as they gazed at the desolation. They decided to do whatever they could to stop the developer.

Today, Bellman and Lutz can look back and acknowledge that they were naive, but at the time, they were incensed. They contacted the Audubon Society and the Miami Herald, hoping those institutions would join the battle. They distributed photos they took of the equipment and the wreckage. Nothing happened. Their campaign fell flat. "No one was interested," Bellman says scornfully. The rejection only hardened their will. "We said, 'Forget this hunting,'" Bellman recalls.

For the next year and half, the boys would arrive at the camp and take a nap. Around dusk, someone would shake them awake. As darkness fell, they would make sorties into Golden Gate. Denninger would join them on the raids when he was home from Thailand.

They started up bulldozers and ran them into the freshly dug drainage canals. Bellman says he attacked the enormous engine of the tree crusher with an angry volley of ordnance. "That was one of the proudest days in my life," he beams. They removed generators from the equipment so work couldn't proceed at night. Most they threw into the canals, but they took one to add electricity to the cabin. Denninger would pour sand into a machine's upright exhaust system. "That'll do a number on it," he says with a grin.

"If we could burn it, shoot it, wreck it, or steal it, we did," Bellman recalls, chuckling at the thought now, since he's not too crazy about environmentalists. "We were the first Greenpeace!"

Bellman says the group gave up the ecoterrorism after watching the developer haul bulldozers out of the canals with a giant crane and simply replace the engine they had destroyed in the tree crusher. They were no match for GAC's resources. "We didn't realize it at the time," Bellman says, "but there was no stopping it."

By the mid-1970s, Golden Gate Estates was bone-dry. The land was scarred by 95 miles of crisscrossing paved and unpaved roads and more than 72 miles of canals. "They destroyed so many oaks, it was unbelievable," Lutz remarks. "Now it's just pine and palmetto." Today, a sprinkling of isolated homes and makeshift dwellings can be found in the area -- along with invasive foreigners like the Brazilian pepper tree.

The Fakahatchee also felt the impact of nearby construction. Park biologist Mike Owen says the water table there dropped about two feet, a dramatic change. The forested ecosystem that had protected sensitive plants like orchids, he notes, became vulnerable to the scorching heat of summer and to the chill of South Florida winters.

Prior to the Golden Gate scorched-earth project, GAC's predecessor, Gulf American Land Development Corp., had run into trouble with state authorities for dredging without a permit while creating Coral Springs. To make amends, GAC in 1973 offered the state 9,523 acres of the Fakahatchee. That deal was the beginning of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, which today encompasses more than 70,000 acres.

A 2,000-foot boardwalk now allows park visitors to see old-growth cypress that formed a supercanopy over the strand before it was logged and the enchanting features of the ecosystem. But to get an intimate sense of the place, you need to pull on a pair of waders, step off Janes Scenic Drive, and make your way through the spongy muck and tannin-brown sloughs where cypress knees crowd the water like an obstacle course. The air is sweet and cool under the deep-green canopy of trees. Concourses of waist-high sword ferns spread out through the woods. Live oaks, laurel oaks, slash pine, and longleaf pine appear on higher ground. The largest stand of native royal palms in the U.S. is located here. Barred owls hoot to one another through the dense foliage. Panthers and deer and black bear roam. And all the trees, it seems, are clogged with bromeliads, ferns, orchids. It's lush and dense, and to get through it, you must pick your way carefully.

Long before park amenities were in place, however, state officials wrestled with the complicated process of taking ownership and expanding on the initial acreage. There are still more than 2,000 private property owners within the preserve, park manager Greg Toppin says. Many are foreigners who were duped into buying swampland during Gulf American's heyday. Locating those landowners has been difficult, Toppin adds. So far, Florida has spent well over a million dollars buying land. As for privately owned, old-fashioned hunting camps within the park, Toppin says there remain only about five. Bellman's is one of them.

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