The Big Cypress Deal

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

The Homestead scheme was an ideal opportunity for the Colliers. Hurricane Andrew had demolished hangars and housing on the base when it swept through South Florida in August 1992. Officials of the U.S. Air Force, which owned the 3400 acres, decided to sell most of the property. The base, however, lies in an environmentally sensitive area, about 2500 feet from Biscayne National Park and a few miles from Everglades National Park. Conservation groups opposed a plan for a civilian airport.

Thus, when the Colliers proposed in April 1999 to remove the runway at the base, develop housing and commercial space, and add a series of wetlands and lakes, they quickly garnered support from many environmentalists. In exchange for the property, the Colliers offered mineral rights at Big Cypress, Ten Thousand Islands Refuge, and the Florida Panther Refuge. In January 2000, the Air Force released a study assessing other possible uses for Homestead, including transferring ownership of the property to DOI so it could make an exchange with the Colliers. That option posed fewer environmental risks than an airport, the study noted. A week later, Interior Secretary Babbitt declared his opposition to the airport but didn't support a specific alternative. Carol Browner, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, quickly agreed.

Illustration By Brian Stauffer
Illustration By Brian Stauffer

With the Clinton administration in full retreat from the Homestead airport proposal, it seemed the Interior Department could move ahead in negotiating a trade with the Colliers. Internally, however, DOI once again faced the thorny issue of valuation. Subsequent to the demise of the naval training center swap, the U.S. Geological Survey published a report titled Undiscovered Oil and Gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve -- a Total Petroleum System Assessment of the South Florida Basin. Using that report, the park service concluded in an August 2000 memo that the Colliers' share of the mineral rights amounted to 2.44 million barrels of oil and 12.11 billion cubic feet of natural gas, with an estimated value of $5 million to $20 million.

The memo also emphasized that buying the Colliers' mineral rights would not preclude other owners from drilling. The Colliers have 100 percent of the mineral rights in 158,000 acres of the preserve's 716,000 acres. The family holds rights of less than 100 percent on another 292,000 acres. In other words, 266,000 acres of mineral rights are held by others, possibly thousands of individuals.

Although the Colliers were wedded to the enormous figures that had been bandied about a few years before, some conservation groups recognized that the mineral rights weren't worth that much.

Says former Everglades Coalition co-chairman Guggenheim: "I was pushing for the Colliers to also put land on the table in that deal. I was looking at Homestead as a swap, with or without the mineral rights as a component. The Colliers were very uninterested in those types of proposals and were really focused more on getting cash. They're some of the best negotiators I've ever worked with.

"I'd much rather have oil rigs out [in Big Cypress] than strip malls in southwest Florida. If we go for a walk in 200 years in Big Cypress after all the drilling's done, if they've done their reclamation correctly, we won't even know they were there. But those strip malls, once they go in, they tend to hang around."

Mary Munson, Florida director of the National Parks Conservation Association, recalls the Colliers claimed their mineral rights were worth more than the Homestead base: "I mean, the numbers they were throwing around were just exorbitant," she says.

Ultimately the Air Force opted to transfer Homestead to Miami-Dade County with the caveat that there could be no airport.

Then, after George W. Bush's election in November 2000, something peculiar happened. Guggenheim, who left the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in June 2000 and took a position at the Ocean Conservancy in D.C., received a call from the DOI asking which Collier lands he considered priority acquisitions. "Suddenly, there was buzz about it in the administration," he says. "That's the first time I became aware that the issue ... had come back to life."

New Times' DOI source says that some park-service staff were pressing hard in the fall of 2001 to use the Justice Department's strict appraisal standards. At one point, he says, an Interior attorney stated that "the Colliers will probably not accept a value that is derived from the standards" and that therefore they won't be used. The Interior source contends that Jeb Bush's re-election was a driving force behind the push to acquire the Colliers' mineral rights. "Because that was so, there was pressure coming down from the president and ... the Interior Secretary to make sure everybody played ball," he says.

On January 14, the park service released an environmental assessment for the Colliers' proposed seismic testing on a 40-square-mile area in Big Cypress. The report recommended proceeding with the operation, but only with strict conditions. One of those, to which the Colliers objected, was the ten-percent influence limit. The rule states that no more than one-tenth of the preserve can be affected by exploration or drilling at any given time. Thus only about two fields the size of Raccoon Point could be added. Moreover, a single seismic testing operation would affect almost eight percent -- and the Colliers proposed almost 25 of these. The Colliers would have to spend a quarter-century just looking for oil if they were forced to adhere to preserve rules.

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