The Big Cypress Deal

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

That same year, the National Park Service, which administers Big Cypress, made clear to top DOI officials that it was not interested in such a deal for a number of reasons, a park service memo reveals. First, with state and park service regulations in place, oil and gas development presented little threat. Indeed Exxon had pulled out of Big Cypress in 1993 because its wells weren't producing, and two holes drilled by the Colliers about fifteen miles northwest of the preserve proved dry.

The Colliers' designs on the bases became public the following year. Lawyer Roy Cawley, who represented the Colliers, told the Los Angeles Times in April 1996 that the company wanted to acquire almost 3200 acres from the Orlando Naval Training Center, the San Diego Naval Training Center, and the Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay, plus another 1600 acres from the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station in Tustin, California.

That deal, however, never got off the ground. The DOI source claims that Interior Department officials couldn't justify the high price for Collier mineral rights that would have been needed to bargain for military bases. "They could not do this deal because it couldn't pass the red-face test, it was so embarrassing," he says. "There were people behind the scenes to make sure that Babbitt knew that if this got out, it could be another Teapot Dome scandal. Eventually someone's going to point out how the numbers just aren't there." News stories and editorials in the Orlando Sentinel and St. Petersburg Times were skeptical. Babbitt quietly buried the proposal.

Illustration By Brian Stauffer
Illustration By Brian Stauffer

Shortly after the naval bases dropped off the radar screen, the Federal Task Force for South Florida Ecosystem Restoration requested that Big Cypress management evaluate the preserve's priorities. So Wallace Hibbard, BC superintendent, submitted a May 1996 assessment that ranked acquisition of mineral rights on the preserve as "low." Before any acquisition, the value of any privately held mineral rights had to be determined using U.S. Department of Justice Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisition.

"Foreseeable oil and gas exploration and development activities are not seen as a significant threat to [the] Preserve," Hibbard wrote. This was primarily due to strict state and federal environmental safeguards. And, he wrote, the search for oil had slowed over the years. "Exploration drilling ... has had limited success (two discoveries in nearly 30 attempts)," Hibbard stated.

Regardless, the Colliers notified Big Cypress officials that they planned a series of almost 30 seismic tests. Each one would amount to drilling thousands of holes about 27 feet deep, lowering one-pound explosives, igniting, and recording data. Analysts would later pinpoint geologic formations most likely to hold oil.

In June 1998 Cawley and fellow attorney Alan Mintz, who also represented the Colliers, briefed top park-service officials about the testing plans. A DOI memo notes that Cawley "informed the group that he'd made this presentation to various environmental groups headquartered in Washington, D.C., in order to be up-front with them, so that they may share their concerns with the appropriate officials."

The Colliers turned up the heat in January 1999 at the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition in Miami. "They had asked for a spot on the agenda, which we provided them," recalls David E. Guggenheim, who at the time was co-chairman of the coalition, which represents about 40 environmental and conservation groups. "They basically gave to the coalition the same presentation that they had given privately to various folks in the administration and myself and other representatives."

The reaction was not one of alarm, he recollects. "It was more like: yet another issue on a huge pile of issues.... I can't say there was a lengthy or overly animated discussion after that. There were a number of people who felt [the Colliers] were simply trying to tell a good story and make a good deal."

Ron Clark, chief of resource management at Big Cypress, was also present. "They made a big show and had a map showing all their plans," he says. "Essentially they suggested that the environmental groups contact the administration if they had concerns. Most thought the Colliers were bluffing."

Robert Duncan, general manager of Collier Resources Co., says the family was "absolutely" serious. "If we didn't feel serious about exploration," he explains, "we never would have spent the money and time putting permit applications together and going through the long and arduous exercise of trying to obtain permitted operations. We've been at this a long, long time in a way that is genuine, professional, and sincere."

The DOI source is skeptical: "They know that to go out and drill a well for two million dollars is a high-risk venture. If there's nothing down there, you've lost two million. Not only do you have to make a profit on the next one, you've got to pay the two million you just lost. A third dry one means six million. And the thing is, there are no wells in South Florida that are barnburners. All the oil and gas production is mediocre. And the oil itself is not high-grade."

Several months later it became clear why the Colliers had blitzed everyone with the drilling plan: The family wanted to swap mineral rights for property at the former Homestead Air Force Base in Miami-Dade County. "There's a limited window of opportunity to do the exchanges," Cawley told the Associated Press. "The window closes at the point where we get the first oil-exploration permit."

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