Opposition to Bellmar Overwhelms FDEP Meeting

NAPLES, Fla. - On Thursday, December 7, as members of the public were arriving at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Bellmar development 404 wetland permit public meeting, a crowd of more than 35 opponents of the project gathered in the Naples Library courtyard with the organizations at the front of the fight to save the Florida panther.

Sierra Club Florida, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and South Florida Wildlands Association representatives explained to the press, and a crowd of impacted residents, and land conservation and wildlife protection activists from across the Greater Everglades ecosystem, the many and varied reasons why the Bellmar project is anathema to the continued existence of not only the Florida panther, but other critically endangered species like the Audubon’s crested caracara. Signs that read Bellmar Sprawl = Extinction,” “Protect Our Way of Life,” and “Save the Panther–Stop Bellmar” blanketed the event and were carried into the FDEP public meeting inside the library.

On December 4, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction (TRO/PI) to prevent the imminent issuance of two state 404 permits for projects that will cause them irreparable harm: the Bellmar and Kingston (another recently noticed permit application impacting the same region), development projects. Following filing of the TRO/PI motion, on December 6, EPA told the Court that the earliest it would comment on Bellmar is January 26, 2024 and for the Kingston development the earliest EPA would comment is February 9, 2024. Whether the permit decision will be further delayed will depend upon the court's decision in response to the pending PI motion, which will be briefed and argued in the coming weeks. 

“Bellmar is within a critical wetland flowway and 100% within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. This project’s location is unacceptable as it threatens our natural resources, particularly the survival and recovery of endangered Florida panthers. We can’t afford to lose essential parts of our Western Everglades ecosystem to sprawl development,” said Amber Crooks, Environmental Policy Manager of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. 

Matthew Schwartz, South Florida Wildlands Association Executive Director stated: “Generations of Floridians have worked to create a network of lands in Southwest Florida that protects the small amount of remaining habitat for the endangered Florida panther – Florida’s official State Animal. Not only is the Bellmar project site actively used by panthers as well as other area wildlife such as Florida black bears, but it connects the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the most densely populated public land concerning panthers, to other critical conservation areas further north. Those include the CREW Lands, Flint Pen Strand, and Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp. Combined with a dramatic uptick in vehicles and traffic expected in this critical area from the project, Bellmar could be the one that sends the panther over the edge.”

Rhonda Roff, Sierra Club Calusa Group Conservation Chair and resident of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation added: “Hunters and fisher-people, birders, beach-goers, snorkelers and scuba divers, canoers, kayakers and power boaters, are all able to work or play in Florida's rich diversity of ecosystems, viewing or harvesting, for sport or business, the fish and wildlife which lives here. We may all have different reasons, but have you ever met anyone who doesn't appreciate wildlands and wildlife? But if there is no wild, there is no wildlife.”

Michael McGrath, Sierra Club Florida Lead Organizer said: “With regard to the panther, FDEP is poised to grant a permit based on an inflated and arbitrary population estimate and growth rate. While the US Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with accurately determining the impacts from such a development, the Service has failed, over and over again, to do so. The Service has failed to consider the full amount of habitat loss and degradation that will occur due to the development and failed to consider the impacts from narrowing the Florida wildlife corridor. Moreover, the Service has failed to adequately assess reasonably foreseeable cumulative effects for a slew of sprawling developments being proposed across Lee, Collier, and Hendry counties. To add insult to injury, the Service has failed the Caracara in much of the same way with flawed methodologies and gross over-estimates that fail to follow the science. Failure is not an option when extinction is the result. The only legitimate option FDEP has is to deny this permit.”

The FDEP meeting, unlike in years past where attendees would have had the chance to stand at the microphone and share their concerns, was set up as a series of posters, with their attendant FDEP spokespersons, and tables where attendees could either fill out a comment card or record a verbal comment. The attendees appeared to be limited to the opposition activists from the press conference.

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Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club
Conservancy of Southwest Florida

BACKGROUND: Bellmar would add more than 4,000 homes and 45,000 additional daily vehicle trips about one mile away from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, destroy over 140 acres of wetlands, and destroy more than 1,700 acres of Primary Zone panther habitat –the most valuable for the future of the species. Vehicular collisions, which have already killed 13 panthers this year and are the leading cause of death for this iconic and endangered species, would necessarily increase. Another listed species in the cross-hairs is the imperiled crested caracara. A Bellmar development would also threaten the wild lands upon which the area’s rural quality of life depends.

For more information go to www.conservancy.org/bellmar.