Paradise Crushed

Ralph Bellman remembers the day he ran into Florida's future: September 15, 1969. In a way, it was the day he ran into his own future. Bellman is 57 years old now, with a thick horse's mane of gray-streaked black hair that reaches his shoulders in the back. OK, it's a mullet, thinning a little on top. Usually he wears a hat of some kind to cover the retreating hairline. But the guy's got a fat wallet. For years, he's owned a very successful business. He's also bursting with the energy of five normal people, has a booming ego, and stands just five feet, five inches tall. Back in '69, when he was 23, friends called him "Sawed Off."

That September day, Bellman cruised west along the Tamiami Trail toward Everglades City in his brand-new, ocean-spray-green, four-speed Ford pickup. It was a sweet truck. He'd come home from his honeymoon (second marriage) for a weekend visit to a ramshackle hunting camp he and his buddies had thrown together in a thick cypress swamp in southwest Florida.

Bellman turned north onto State Road 29 and three miles later made a left at a former logging road called W.J. Janes Scenic Drive. He bumped around the hairpin turn at the community of Lee Cypress, a small enclave settled in separate sections by black and white loggers back in the 1940s, and eased onto the stretch of Scenic Drive that cut through the thick cypress of the Fakahatchee Strand. From Janes Scenic Drive, the trees formed a wall of green.

Then Bellman hit the brakes. A huge metal fence stretched across his path, across his trajectory, across his destiny. A Collier County sheriff's deputy and several private security guards stood watch at the gate.

In the past, Bellman had routinely shown his hunting license and often shot the bull with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers on his way into the camp. Stopping was nothing. The sawed-off kid from Hialeah kind of liked the respect the older guys gave him out there. But a fence? A sheriff's deputy?

Who did these men think they were -- putting up a fence so he couldn't get to his soul place? The Fakahatchee enthralled Bellman, got deep into his gut. It had been that way since he first visited the swamp as a teenager. Actually, to hear him recount the personal mythology of Ralph Noah Bellman, his general fascination with hunting animals preceded the swamp experience. That bestial obsession struck him as a 14-year-old, the first time he saw an airboat in Cooperstown with a buck deer strapped to it, hanging upside down, a hunter's quarry. "I couldn't sleep that night," he recollects.

When Bellman was about 16 years old, cousins of the Cowart boys down the street in Hialeah took him out hunting in the Fakahatchee. He was gone then, ape-shit for the place. His mother, Mary, was fine with it, even though hunting wasn't in her blood. Some scary stuff was going on with her Ralphie and the Cuban influx into Dade County in the early 1960s -- something to do with guns, Bellman says. Gun running? He nods his head weakly, yes, and then avoids talking about it in any but the most general terms. Mentions his kids and his responsibility to be a role model.

In the Fakahatchee, Mary thought, Ralphie would learn responsible firearm use -- that's the way we phrase it now, right? She also hoped it would tame the wildness that seemed to be hurling her boy straight to trouble, the capital T kind of trouble. A hunter has to be focused to stalk and kill wildlife -- can't be wild-ass his own self. Mary even bought Ralphie his first weapon, a bolt-action shotgun, even took him out along the Tamiami Trail to try a little shooting.

But the Cowart boys made it real for Ralph there in the Fakahatchee, and he was permanently hooked. Just to make sure he didn't get any crazy ideas, though, his mother kept the bolt in her purse for safekeeping when he wasn't in the woods, Bellman says, shaking his head with a laugh. "She had me then," he remarks. Yard work. Grades. Staying on the straight and narrow, with a few marginal detours. Mary had her Ralphie right where she wanted him.

Still, through his rebel years and beyond, Bellman developed a healthy distrust of authority. And so, on that autumn day 34 years ago, when Bellman saw the gate, the uniforms, the security detail, he jumped out of the pickup and approached. Says he remembers the exchange plain as day.

"Hi, how ya doin'?" security guy says, all officious and proprietary. "You deer huntin' in here?"

"Yes, sir," Bellman answered, using that servile form of address Florida boys employed back then to show deference to their elders. Bellman instinctively understood that the protocol could also be used to throw authority figures off-guard.

The guard's reply was a shocker: "No, you're not."

"What happened?" Bellman stammered, suddenly reduced to mush. "I-I-I got a camp." Rudy Lutz was on his way from Hialeah. The home fries planned to spend the weekend stalking deer, prepping for the hunting season.

Guard guy responded with ponderous gravitas. "Well, son," he said. Pause. "This land belongs to Gulf American Land Development Corp."

On the exact wording, Bellman's sonographic memory may be a little off. Nine months before the incident, in February 1969, General Acceptance Corporation (GAC) of Allentown, Pennsylvania, bought Gulf American, which was having trouble because a blitz of bad publicity it had provoked coincided with the state's move to regulate land sales or, more accurately, Florida swamp sales. Gulf American had been a leader in that arena.

Some history: Between 1960 and 1963, Gulf American assembled 175 square miles of southwest Florida. The scheme was massive suburbia. Its name would be Golden Gate Estates. If the project were completed as envisioned, it would be the largest suburban development on the planet.

The Golden Gate pipe dream followed Gulf American's showpiece, a new Gulf Coast city called Cape Coral, built on a peninsula just west of Fort Myers at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. The history of Gulf American, its land purchases, and its demise is detailed in the 1993 book Selling the Dream by David E. Dodrill. "Cape Coral had sprung up as a developer's dream," Dodrill says in a telephone interview from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. At Cape Coral, Gulf American dredged mountains of sand to fill in a vast stretch of mangroves between the river and the Gulf of Mexico. The company built a city from the ground up -- streets, homes, a million-dollar yacht and racquet club, an Olympic-sized pool, tennis and shuffleboard courts, a bathing beach on the river. Cape Coral was an expensive proposition.

With Golden Gate, however, the company changed its approach. On its sweeping 112,000 acres (north of Alligator Alley to Tamiami Trail, east of Naples), Gulf American planned only limited improvements to the land so its salesmen could unload raw acreage to investors.

In 1966, Gulf American added to its holdings, buying 68,267 acres east of and adjacent to Golden Gate, land that included a swampy orchid- and fern-laden cypress slough that drained into the Ten Thousand Islands. The company was land-mad. By the end of 1967, Dodrill writes, Gulf American owned 589,738 acres in four states and in one Central American country. Most of it was in Florida.

The cypress slough, now known as the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, shimmers strangely in Florida land-development history. In the 1940s, its huge old-growth cypress was logged to provide wood for PT boats and other vessels during World War II. It is home to a stupendous quantity of rare tropical flora and fauna. In recent years, it has become the celebrity slice of the River of Grass. New Yorker writer Susan Orlean wrote about the Fakahatchee and its legendary ghost orchids in her 1998 book The Orchid Thief, on which the 2002 movie Adaptation was based.

To Gulf American, though, the strand looked more like one huge potential home site. In 1967, the company vowed to drain the entire area. That ecological catastrophe was averted, Dodrill writes, only because Collier County officials had the temerity to stand up to Gulf American and say no.

Back at that security gate in 1969, Ralph Bellman could only imagine that the idea of a private company buying and blocking access to thousands of acres in the Fakahatchee had to be some huge misunderstanding on the part of the security man. "I wanted to get into a debate with the guy," he recalls.

The guard cut him short: "There's no debating. We're fencing it off."

Bellman looked westward beyond the gate. Barbed wire had been strung up as a second barrier to the strand, his hunting camp, his weekend plans. "OK," he said, stunned. "W-h-h-hat do I do?"

The guard directed Bellman to the local offices of Gulf American (now GAC), where he endured the company's high-powered sales pitch and walked out with an acre-and-a-quarter parcel deep in the swamp for $2,000. His monthly payments were only $20, but he could ill afford even that. Friend and coworker Rudy Lutz agreed to split it with him.

After sealing the deal, Bellman says, he took the slip of paper that showed he owned land and headed back to the Fakahatchee and his hunting camp. The salesman had told Bellman that, as a landowner, he could set up camp wherever he chose in the swamp. Naturally, he chose the site of his existing cabin, just off Scenic Drive and down an old logging trail.

"Me and Ralph were forced to buy some land there just to go hunting," a miffed Rudy Lutz says from the woods in Salisbury, Vermont, where he moved from Davie four years ago to escape encroaching development. He and Bellman hadn't spoken in about 30 years until Ralph called him recently. A falling-out over business. IRS troubles. Lawsuits. Neither is interested in rehashing the details.

For Bellman, GAC's widespread developments marked a permanent change in the way the wild land of southwest Florida was viewed and valued. Something profound was lost when he was forced to buy the rights to his own hunting camp. "When we grew up, people shared the land that was available, even if it was owned by someone else," he says. "Gulf American [GAC] showed me what 'a taking' was. That matured me." The experience was a revelation. "Land is power, and money is power, and without it, you have nothing," he intones.

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."

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."

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.

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.

You'd think Bellman, Denninger, and the others would have rejoiced when the state acquired Fakahatchee. They didn't. Five years after the takeover, the Bellman family had to abandon its original camp and build anew eight miles into the interior of the park, where the property is actually located. Then in 1986, the state ended hunting in the Fakahatchee and prohibited the use of off-road vehicles, actions taken to protect the feral hog and whitetail deer that served as prey for the desperately dwindling population of Florida panthers.

To Ralph Bellman, however, the state's imposition of new rules and regulations took him back to that day in 1969 when he confronted a guard and a gate across his path. Someone new was swooping in from the outside, making pronouncements about what was best for the place, telling him where he could go and what he could do. Even today, it grates on Bellman and Denninger, who spent 34 years together hunting and exploring Florida's southwest wilderness.

Preservation of the Fakahatchee Strand, the nearby Big Cypress National Preserve, and the new Picayune Strand State Forest (just east of Naples) has come at a high price. The Bellmans can no longer hunt the Fakahatchee. And even though they can use an off-road vehicle to reach their relocated camp eight miles off Janes Scenic Drive, the general public is prohibited. Bellman thinks other visitors should be able to use vehicles that will allow them to travel deep into the strand, especially if use is restricted to old logging trails. In the Big Cypress, swamp-buggy enthusiasts and airboat owners who've been using the area for many years are now feuding with federal officials over access.

Besides, Bellman and Denninger are not convinced that parks people know how to protect the habitat any better than the rapacious developers. Both also say that hunters have been made the scapegoat for an environment in trouble. Federal and state park managers, they believe, missed an opportunity by not inviting hunters and area natives to teach the bureaucrats and scientists about the ecosystem they've known so well.

"No matter what we hunters did out there, it was development that was the disaster," Bellman insists. Still, he thinks the area is better off as public land. "If the park service hadn't taken it over," he says, "we'd have development from Naples to Key West."

Denninger, at age 55, has become a devoted activist on behalf of South Florida's Everglades system. He attends meetings about off-road vehicle trails in the Big Cypress. He fights to protect the rights of hunters. He susses out the long-term agenda of the international environmental-protection movement, studies its lobbying methods. You'd think he was paranoid except for the fact that he seems to be making some sense of it.

Bellman, though, thinks his old friend Denninger ought to give the activism a break and focus on his livelihood as a metal fabricator. The man drives around in a 1984 Ford pickup with a fading paint job and 300,000 miles on it. He has to pour a quart and a half of oil in the thing every 50 miles.

Denninger just as quickly rags on Bellman, calling him selfish for not devoting more time to the struggle. He wishes his friend would make the same commitment to fight for the rights of traditional users as they both did in battling the Golden Gate development.

On an agonizingly sultry day in mid-June, the sun is screaming hot, and it's not even 10 a.m. The rain has come out of the fast-blackening sky as if the clouds gathered into a single giant reservoir of water and then flipped upside down, pouring it to Earth all at once. Crazy pummeling. And it's just the start of the rainy season.

Mosquitoes move in thick clouds, descending to swarm over anything warm-blooded. The microbuzzards envelop you in the daytime, but it's even worse at dusk. If you could stop breathing, you would. Simply by inhaling, you could snort the things directly into your system.

Bellman trudges down the old logging trail to his original camp in full camouflage gear, a green camo shirt and a weird combo of black-and-tan pants. He's covered in mosquito netting, a kind of bucket hat with mosquito net sewn around the edges that can be tucked into a T-shirt. He looks like a creature emerged from the black lagoon. Denninger is bare-faced, wearing a baseball cap and a long-sleeved, plain-green canvas shirt tucked into blue jeans, which are tucked into knee-high waders. No mosquito netting. He profiles as macho man.

They wade through a slough and are tickled to discover that the old gate they put up along the logging trail is still there, locked, and it's been 25 years since they used this place. Bellman eagerly points out how the vegetation has taken over. He's delighted to see a healthy young live oak in the middle of a path. It's as tall as Bellman himself.

The tree and the thick encroaching vegetation they slide past and climb over demonstrate how tough the habitat is, how it recovers and reclaims human despoliation. "It's the toughest environment on Earth," Denninger says. "Look at all the abuse it's taken."

A knee-deep pond spiked with cypress knees separates the cabin from the logging road. The decking that formed a front porch has fallen into the swamp. A strangler fig grows over the roof. It's all rotting, decomposing into muck.

Perched outside on the remains of the porch, Bellman points out the red table where they ate dinner, the rusted remains of a box spring, a flowered sofa bed whose stuffing has escaped from gaping holes. "That was a beautiful sofa when Judy brought it in here," Bellman says wistfully.

Weeks after his visit to the old hunting camp, Bellman reflected on what the Fakahatchee had taught him as a young man. The Golden Gate experience educated him about the value and power of property and turned him into something of a rebel. But building the camp and learning how to stalk game silently in the beautiful swamp deepened his character and changed him in ways that resonate to this day. Those are the unforgettable experiences that both he and Denninger fear will soon be unavailable.

"It teaches you total accountability, because you can lose your life out there," Denninger says. "If you come to a stop, as I have more than once, within 12 inches of a coiled cottonmouth, you learn there are no guarantees in life. It also teaches you the total insignificance of man on the planet."

He reflects for a full minute.

"It's kept me in my place," he says. "It teaches you about the value of life. It teaches you what taking a life is. It's serious business."

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