A Brooklyn guy who fell in love with the wilderness of off-road South Florida, Matthew Schwartz was alarmed to learn last spring of plans for oil drilling on the edge of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The group he leads, the South Florida Wildlands Association, joined with others to stop the project. They lost.
Since then, Schwartz has done a little drilling of his own, reading deep into official permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection and translating legalese into maps of the affected areas. What he learned about oil industry plans for the region, he says, shows that the threat to the Florida panther is much greater than first believed.
Here's how he describes his first discovery:
As it turns out, the well next to the panther refuge is just a tiny part of the approximately 115,000 acres of mineral rights the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Beeville, Texas, has leased from Collier Resources, the actual owners of over 800,000 acres of mineral rights in southwest Florida... The Hughes lease includes large portions of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW Lands), and even the famous Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, with some of the last old-growth cypress in our state. The lease runs for five years and can be extended.
Next, he learned of two more leases issued by Collier Resources:
Tocala LLC of Ridgeland, Mississippi, has acquired a lease (103,000 acres) which has only recently been approved... It covers a major portion of the land just north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Cypress National Preserve -- and includes part of the Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area. It also includes a section of State Road 29 which is almost synonymous with panther roadkill.
The second lease, held by the Burnett Oil Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, has not yet been permitted. If approved, it will be conducted in four phases, eventually covering 234,510 acres of land inside the Big Cypress National Preserve -- the most important chunk of contiguous habitat remaining in the western Everglades and the bulk of the habitat for the Florida panther.
What kind of environment will this create for the Florida panther? According to Schwartz:
These operations will involve driving off-road vehicles through wetlands and other habitat types, drilling thousands of holes, setting off dynamite charges, and "listening" to what's down there with vast arrays of "geophones." This is not geological research. These leases are going to oil-drilling companies who have every intent of setting up roads, wells, and extraction operations once deposits have been located.
"There may be 100 to 160 Florida panthers remaining," Schwartz told New Times. "And the 160 is a high-end estimate. They're living in a very small area for a big cat with a big range, so even without the intrusion of the oil industry, their fate looks grim."
Schwartz has joined the call for concerned citizens throughout South Florida to attend a March 11 meeting in Naples, in which the federal Environmental Protection Agency will focus on the issue of oil well waste water and its impact on local drinking water.
South Florida Wildlands Association P.O. Box 30211 Fort Lauderdale, FL 33303 Phone: 954-634-7173
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