Living Sanibel: Picayune Strand State Preserve
Driving down Everglades Boulevard in the very heart of the Picayune Strand is a bit like being in a chapter of “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman’s book on what the planet would be like if humans suddenly disappeared. There are no homes, no gas stations, no telephone poles, or any sign of civilization except for empty roads that appear to take you nowhere. Once called Southern Golden Gates Estates, this undeveloped subdivision, along with the adjacent Belle Meade subdivision to the west, were once destined to be the two largest developments in all of Florida.
They were the brainchild of Jack and Leonard Rosen, the brothers who purchased the land from the Lee-Tidewater Cypress Company after it had logged off all of the virgin cypress timber in the late 1950s. The Rosens’ Gulf American Land Corporation is considered by many to have originated the “swampland in Florida” sales scheme, selling 1.25-acre parcels to unsuspecting investors up north. Unbeknownst to these buyers, during the rainy season most of these two subdivisions were underwater. Gulf American built 227 miles of road and dug 83 miles of drainage ditches here before the state of Florida shut down the entire operation because of fraudulent and misleading sales practices.
In 1985, Florida began an ambitious plan to buy back all the individually owned parcels, numbering 17,000, and reclaim the 85 square miles of developed land included in the Picayune Strand. Most of the lot owners received only pennies on the dollar for their worthless investments, but by 1998 the majority of the land was owned by the state. The state has begun ripping up roads and filling in canals, but the entire project to restore the land to a more natural state is expected to take decades to complete.
The Picayune Strand State Forest totals more than 78,615 acres (118 square miles). To the east lies the Fakahatchee Strand and beyond that the enormous Big Cypress National Preserve. Together with Everglades National Park and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, along with tens of thousands of acres of private land, this vast region forms the backbone for the survival of the Florida panther, the only remnant population of wild pumas left in the eastern U.S. The area has a large deer and wild hog population, making it prime panther habitat.
Other wildlife sightings might include the elusive red-cockaded woodpecker, black bear, bald eagles, wood storks, and Big Cypress fox squirrels. The preserve has two primary trails for recreational use, both located in the western Belle Meade tract. The longer trail, 22 miles in length, is part of Florida’s State Forest Trailtrotter Program, which is designed to get visitors out on horseback to enjoy the state forests and preserves. It includes an equestrian camping area and 10 paddocks. The other trail, known as the Sabal Palm hiking trail, is 3.2 miles long and wanders through a forest of cypress trees that were left uncut in the 1950s. This short trail provides a glimpse into what the original forest must have once looked like. Visitors can also wander down some of the empty roadbeds in search of wading birds and other wildlife. These are not marked hiking trails, however, so care should be taken not to get lost in this maze of endless deserted streets.
Over time the Picayune Strand will regain its former glory. As part of the Big Cypress drainage basin, its roads and canals will eventually disappear, and the gigantic sheet flows that once covered the land will return. This ambitious restoration project is part of the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP). More information about the strand and its future restoration can be found at www.evergladesfoundation.org.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.