The Big Cypress Deal

The cover story is conservation, but the Bush boys have their hands in the taxpayers' pockets again

Standing in a dark suit during an Oval Office ceremony on May 29 with his brother Jeb at his side, President George Bush announced that the federal government would rescue Big Cypress National Preserve from ruin by buying private mineral rights for $120 million from the majority owner of those assets, Collier Resources Co. The firm had for years proposed adding two dozen oil fields on the 716,000-acre preserve, as well as conducting seismic testing requiring underground detonations.

Later that day, Jeb and U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton stood before reporters outside the White House and explained the terms of the federal buyout (still awaiting congressional approval). C.R. Co., owned by the wealthy and storied Collier family from Naples, would receive either cash or oil leases somewhere off the Gulf Coast -- far from Florida's shores. The firm would also receive future income tax breaks in amounts to be settled on later.

"This agreement is a win for all sides," Norton beamed confidently. "For the citizens of Florida, the deal will ensure long-term conservation of the Everglades."

Illustration By Brian Stauffer
Illustration By Brian Stauffer

Florida environmentalists, politicians, and editorial writers were ecstatic.

"The River of Grass is now Bush Country," crowed U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican.

"The notion that you would drill in the Everglades is insane," bellowed Shannon Estenoz, Everglades coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. "Closing the door on that insanity is a very good thing."

Mind you, the political rewards were noticed -- but that didn't seem to matter, because this was a win for everyone. The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, labeled the buyout "a cynical, calculated, brazen political stunt," then skipped a beat: "We'll take it."

Governor Bush told reporters at the time, "It's good public policy, and when there's a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it."


There's much to be embarrassed about, however. Taxpayers are being asked to spend millions but gain nothing of real value. Indeed the Colliers and others have drilled for oil on preserve lands for 60 years. Today nine oil wells operate on two fields: Raccoon Point and Bear Island. Strict regulations limit how much preserve acreage can be devoted to oil drilling at any given time; the two existing fields leave room for about two more the size of Raccoon Point. Moreover, buying out the Colliers does nothing to stop drilling by the hundreds of others who hold mineral rights on the preserve.

Aside from the questionable need for the buyback, the proposed price is about $100 million more than the company's mineral rights are worth. Norton and other senior Department of Interior (DOI) officials have embraced a flawed appraisal that stems from previous failed attempts by the Colliers to swap the mineral rights for federal land. And the administration has chosen to ignore its own staff estimates that value the rights at $5 million to $20 million. Such overpayment will skew the value of other Everglades property. Indeed another major mineral owner in the area is already demanding a similar buyout. In the long run, this deal could more damage than reclaim the Everglades.

"We think if we gave them $25 million, it would be overly generous," says a well-placed DOI source. "[The Colliers] have just been trying to palm off a $5 poker chip as a $50 poker chip. There's so much politics going on."

For the Colliers, the buyout is a long-awaited alignment of the political stars. The family successfully swapped Florida swampland for property in downtown Phoenix in the late 1980s, then spent the next decade trying to exchange mineral rights for military bases. The latter would-be trade sank, in part due to the Colliers' almost $500 million price, a bloated value that "couldn't pass the red-face test," according to the DOI source. The proffered tax break now could add hundreds of millions of dollars more. For the Bushes, however, the price is right.

"A lot of this is not about President Bush but his brother's election this fall," the DOI source asserts. "They want the deal in the public's eye so that the environmental people say, 'Whoa, this administration is doing a really good deal taking oil and gas out of Florida.' And they get the vote. Even if this isn't passed by Congress, they've already won what they wanted, which is re-election of the governor."


Land has long been the hub of the Collier business wheel. Barron Gift Collier found fortune during the first decades of the Twentieth Century by selling advertisements on streetcars in New York City. He moved to southwest Florida in 1921 and purchased 1.25 million acres of swampland for 25 cents an acre. Then he founded the Barron Collier Co. with plans to create a national tourist attraction. Although much of that acreage now bears the name Collier County, his scheme was foiled by the Great Depression. He died in 1939, leaving three sons: Miles, Sam, and Barron, Jr.

Humble Oil and Refining Co., a Texas firm that later became part of Exxon, discovered petroleum near the town of Sunniland in Collier County in 1943 on land owned by the Colliers. Humble tapped into what came to be known as the Sunniland Trend, a geological formation some 12,000 feet below the surface. It is about 80 miles long and 25 miles wide and extends into Lee, Hendry, and Monroe counties.

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