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Florida’s Environmentalists Are Waging War — Against Each Other

How a panther habitat became a battleground for the state’s environmental groups

A panther and suburban houses.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons

About 27 miles inland from Florida’s southwestern coast sit three empty swaths of land among a sea of green. This undeveloped area represents both the future of Florida’s development and the culmination of a 20 year fight between the state’s environmentalists.

“What happens here will change the face of Collier County forever,” April Olson, a researcher at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, told me.

Home to affluent Naples and its fast-growing population of retirees, the county recently approved plans for four new villages to be built in one of Florida’s last undeveloped areas, which is sandwiched between some of the state’s biggest and most important nature reserves. The region hasn’t enjoyed official protection, per se, but it has enjoyed a special status. But with almost half a million people having moved to Florida just last year, and more on the way, the county of 300,000 inhabitants and counting has decided to keep building.

Yet if this sounds like a typical story of developers versus environmentalists, it isn’t. Instead, it has become a unique point of tension among environmental groups in Florida. While one group believes it’s their responsibility to be a part of this conversation and help manage unavoidable development, the other side believes it’s their role to fight against it.

“I’m very surprised environmentalists are taking this pragmatic approach,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “This isn’t what environmentalists do.”

The result is a rift among the guardians of Florida’s wildlife.

The Panthers

The environmentalists all agree on what they’re trying to protect: the panthers. From a conservation perspective, the region has acted as a corridor for the state’s remaining endangered panthers, of which there are only 120-230 adults left in the wild, to travel.

The area is surrounded by protected nature reserves. To the north is a complex of wildlife, bird sanctuaries, and wetlands; to the northeast are two different wildlife management areas, and to the south is the Florida panther national wildlife refuge, another wildlife management area that is home to bears, a state forest, a state preserve, and a national preserve that ultimately extends into the Everglades.

“This area is a mosaic of habitat types that allows the panther to live,” said Schwartz. “What they are doing essentially fragmented those complexes from one another.”

But to understand how the area has become a battleground of environmentalist groups, you’ll first have to dive into the area’s weird regulatory history.

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  • How It Began

    The villages being constructed amid this remarkably untouched land are the most recent outcome of a partnership between developers, land owners, and environmental groups. Called the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA) program, this partnership changed zoning over 20 years ago to allow for more dense development in exchange for environmental protections.

    “At the end of the day, the RLSA is a compromise,” said Meredith Budd, who worked on this project when she was a policy director at the Florida Wildlife Federation. (She is now the director of external affairs for the Live Wildly Foundation.)

    The RLSA was born way back in 1999, when then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush put a moratorium on development in Collier County. He claimed that urban sprawl in Naples, the state’s fastest growing city at the time, had gotten out of hand and that everyone needed to figure out a better solution for development that preserved agricultural lands and protected the environment.

    When the RLSA was first discussed and proposed in 2002, most environmentalist groups, including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, were on board. The battle that has emerged among these groups has its roots in some imprecise wording from the original proposal that almost tripled the amount of land that developers could build on.

    The total area was — and still is — about 198,000 acres. Just over half of the acreage is protected nature reserves, with the rest mostly agricultural land available for development. But there’s a catch. Prior to the RLSA, the zoning only allowed for a single house, called a “ranchette,” to be built every five acres on the developable land. While some of these solitary homes exist today on farms, the majority of the area is still uninhabited, therefore serving as a wildlife corridor as well as porous land to absorb heavy rainfall or storm surges.

    That’s where the RLSA was supposed to come in. Published in 2002, it proposed to change the allotment, swapping denser housing for more protected land. It indicated that 16,805 acres of the 98,000 available could be built on if developers earned allowances by restoring other land, although what would count as restoration was a little hazy. The language around these numbers was also very vague, critically leaving room to increase the amount of credits able to be earned and, subsequently, the acres developed. It ultimately increased the amount of land up for development to 45,000 acres. Many of the conservancies didn’t realize this change until the five-year review in 2007.

    “We were supportive of RLSA,” said Olson. “But we believe the goals are not being met. The public was promised that 16,000 acres would be developed and that 91% of the area would be preserved.”

    But those working with the RLSA think what’s done is done. “There’s no point in going back and figuring out what happened,” said Budd. “The allowable footprint is over 40,000 acres. We have to move forward and figure out whether wildlife connections can be made.”

    The intent of the 1999 moratorium was to curb development for the benefit of conservation. The RLSA is still attempting to do that, but it’s a voluntary program, and much of the power lies with the landowners.

    But in the past few years, Florida’s real estate market has boomed and land use planning regulations have been weakened. This combination made landowners restless to start building, more able to do so, and more impatient when it comes to making concessions to conservationists. Pro-RLSA environmentalists say playing hardball in negotiations with developers just won’t fly anymore.

    “These organizations trying to save habitat by killing these programs aren’t helping, they’re making it worse,” said Elizabeth Fleming, a representative at Defenders of Wildlife, which supports the RLSA.

    The four new villages, which are cumulatively known as “The Town of Big Cypress,” are only the most recent developments in the RLSA. The first, called Ave Maria, began building in 2005 but construction paused for a while after the recession. Big Cypress is one of the first cohesive plans out of the RLSA to keep building since then, but six more are in development. Though not nearly finished yet, the website for the Town of Big Cypress promises to fulfill all the expectations of the American dream. “Families strolling along storefronts with ice cream cones in hand … on-street parking for easy access to the hair salon, dog groomer, dry cleaner, and local grocer,” the website says. It promises happiness, community, convenience — even good weather and “responsible growth.”.

    A Battle Among Heroes

    Today, both sides agree that no development would be the best way forward. “In a perfect world, I would love to see no more of it developed,” said Budd. “If I was Queen, I would say you no longer have property rights.”

    Bradley Cornell, policy associate at the Audubon Society of the Western Everglades, helped make the RLSA a reality. “I’d much rather build a wall at the Georgia line and tell everyone to go home,” he said. “But we’re expected to get another 15 million people in Florida over the next 50 years. All of these people are moving to Florida. Where in the hell are we going to put them without ruining Florida’s nature?”

    Between July 2021 and 2022, 444,500 people moved to Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Economic Council. Despite the increase in hurricanes and flooding and the decrease in affordable insurance, Florida is more popular than it has ever been.

    Those in favor of the RLSA say that development is going to happen with or without them, and the RLSA allows them a platform to negotiate. “This is the best compromise we could have gotten,” Cornell said.

    The primary benefit of the RLSA is that it offers a chance at higher density living with a potentially smaller ecological footprint. The pro-RLSA group, for example, has kept some developments from further encroaching on panther habitat. These conservationists have negotiated underpasses and fencing in three different areas to allow panthers and wildlife to cross roads without getting hit. They have also gotten the county to require bear proof trash cans, lowering lights to avoid light pollution, and smoke easements, which require new tenants to sign off on necessary controlled burns to maintain the environment for the panther preserve. From the Town of Big Cypress alone, the RLSA crediting system requires the developers to permanently preserve 12,000 acres. In this case, they will be restoring the hydrology of a major wetland nearby, according to Cornell.

    “We’re just trying to have a seat at the table and ensure that we can get the best conservation outcomes knowing that the landowners have the rights to this land and are permitted to do whatever they want,” said Fleming.

    The pro-RLSAers also pushed for more protections than they got. For 10 years, they fought for a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that would have legally bound the landowners to certain conservation requirements, according to Budd. But pushback from the anti-RLSA groups slowed the process so much that eventually it wasn’t worth the landowners’ time and it was withdrawn in August 2022. Those against the RLSA had many qualms with the HCP and don’t see its withdrawal as a loss.

    The other arguments against the RLSA are plentiful.

    The Alternative

    The anti-RLSA group contends that any development will harm the panthers. “This project would be the nail in the coffin of the panthers,” said Olson.

    This side of the debate also thinks that the zoning rules that predated the RLSA, which previously allowed for ranchettes every five acres, were highly unlikely to practically result in development. They argue that implementing the road infrastructure required for such scattered housing would be prohibitively expensive, suggesting that if the RLSA hadn’t been proposed, this area would have been left untouched.

    “It’s highly unlikely that they would come in and build five-acre ranchettes,” said Olson. “They would need thousands of miles of new roads. One new 100 mile road was calculated to cost $111 million in 2015.”

    Schwartz agreed. “This is completely unpopulated, undeveloped rural land,” he said. “People don’t want to buy a swath of rural land and move into undeveloped lands.”

    But pro-RLSA environmentalists think that perspective is naive. “That’s a false argument,” says Fleming. “It’s based in no reality. People are moving here and that area is the least expensive if you want to be near Naples. I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue.”

    Budd added that money is not a concern in this area. “Collier County is one of the highest wealth points in the state, if not the whole country,” she said. “So to say this would be too expensive is unreasonable.”

    Another area in between Naples and the RLSA, called Golden Gate Boulevard, had the same one-in-five zoning restrictions as the RLSA and has been heavily developed in the last 10 years.

    Florida's Changing Climate

    The RLSA plan also does not seem to be taking the changing climate into account. According to Olson, 96% of Collier County is susceptible to storm surge. The inland parts aren’t as vulnerable, but there is still a high threat and the area’s porosity would be lost with these developments. In addition, the RLSA will experience 109 days where the heat index is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 2023, and 138 in 2053, according to The Washington Post’s interactive map on heat waves.

    County Commissioner Bill McDaniel said that climate change was not a concern in the process of developing The Town of Big Cypress. “There are no stipulations with regard to climate change because it’s such a nebulous discussion point,” he said.

    Though the commissioner agreed that many climate-friendly technologies are comparable, if not less expensive to purchase and maintain, the RLSA does not require developers to install permeable concrete, heat pumps, special shade trees for temperature, or solar panels on the houses.

    “We recommended numerous policies that would encourage more energy efficient homes and appliances, improve permeability of sidewalks, require complete street designs that all users can use, ease traffic congestion, increase Florida friendly plants that require less water, include stipulations for storm water runoff, etc.” said Olson. “They just ignored it. I have not once heard the County even discuss heat issues or climate issues.”

    Budd said that the choice to build inland in itself is a climate-conscious decision. “When looking at this long term and the threats of climate change, the main threat is that people will be moving inland,” she said. “Where we put the development is the most important thing.”

    One of the biggest landowners in the area, named for the county’s namesake, Collier Enterprises, echoed Budd’s sentiment in emailed responses. “The Town of Big Cypress is 19 miles from the coast, similar to Babcock Ranch, which did not sustain damage from the recent Hurricane Ian, having one of the largest reported storm surges ever recorded.” He added that most of the national buildings in the area provide options for energy efficiency and smart home technology

    The Aftermath

    Though both sides have very different ideas of how to be involved in development, they are both aware that development is coming to Eastern Collier County and share the same ultimate desires for the region.

    “We do know that the RLSA is going to grow,” said Olson. “We know that Collier County is going to grow. We just think it could be done more sustainably.”

    Environmentalists everywhere are grappling with how to best save the last bastion of the lands and animals that sustain us. Depending on which side you take in the RLSA fight, it has become a question of cynicism versus hope or pragmatism versus pipe dreams.

    Those against the RLSA are still championing its original goal: to preserve the environment and to curb excessive development. “The goal of the program wasn’t to allow each and every landowner to maximize their profit to the greatest extent,” said Nicole Johnson, Director of Governmental Relations at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

    The other side has committed to pragmatism. “At the end of the day, the dollar speaks,” said Budd. “And unfortunately it speaks louder than the voices against the project.”

    As regulations recede in Florida, the RLSA disagreement signals a philosophical choice environmentalists will increasingly have to make: If we can’t beat them, should we join them?

    Read more about Florida:

    Ron DeSantis’ Environmental Switcheroo

    Jesse  Chase-Lubitz profile image

    Jesse Chase-Lubitz

    Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a climate change writer and the author of the Edifice newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, Politico, The American Prospect, and others. She recently completed an MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics, where she conducted original research into Dutch sea-level rise adaptation architecture within the Netherlands and Indonesia.


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