Crude Motives

Among the best ways to search for oil is the seismic shoot. To make one you drill a hole about 25-feet deep, insert 2.2 pounds of dynamite, and detonate. The explosion causes vibrations in the earth that are recorded by sensitive listening equipment deployed over a large area. The data is translated by computer into a map detailing the subterranean geography. If you are lucky, it shows oil deposits.

As early as the beginning of next year, geologists may start conducting seismic shoots across 40 square miles of one of South Florida's most celebrated wilderness areas, the Big Cypress National Preserve. Initially the project would require construction of an eight-mile road and a 4.5-acre paved platform in the swamp. At least 23 applications are pending with state and federal authorities to test hundreds of thousands of additional acres of the preserve, which is located northwest of Everglades National Park.

Environmentalists are, well, unhappy. They believe the exploration would damage a priceless resource. And they vow to fight.

"[Big Cypress] happens to have water as pure as any in the United States and endangered species all over the place," says Joe Browder, an environmental consultant who helped broker the deal to create the preserve.

But oil exploration in the area is older than Big Cypress Preserve (which was opened in 1974), and only U.S. government purchase of the mineral rights can prevent it. Today most of those rights belong to the Collier family, which is applying for permission to dynamite.

In fact the preserve's history is central to the debate. In 1921 an advertising magnate named Barron Gift Collier came to South Florida to participate in the land boom of the time. After making a fortune selling advertisements on streetcars in New York City, Collier purchased close to 1.25 million acres of swampland at 25 cents per acre, intending to create a tourist mecca. Two years later Collier County was carved out and named for him. But the depression halted the boom and Collier died in 1939. His development plan was never fully realized.

In 1974 the families of Collier's two sons, Miles and Barron, agreed to sell 560,000 acres to the federal government, which was interested in safeguarding the flow of water into Everglades National Park. But the family retained its subsurface mineral rights. Exxon and other oil companies had already done some drilling in the area called Sunniland Trend. Twelve thousand feet down, past layers of rock and clay, they found the remains of ancient reefs and organic material that had turned to oil.

Sunniland Trend is about 80 miles long and 25 miles wide and extends into four counties: Lee, Henry, Monroe, and Collier. No one knows exactly how much petroleum is down there, though eight sites are currently pumping on the tract. Two wellfields are producing in the preserve. Low oil prices have caused some cutbacks recently, but in December both of the wellfields together generated as much as 100,000 barrels per month. (A barrel equals 42 U.S. gallons.)

The Collier family divvied up the joint holdings in 1980, but continued to share the preserve's land mineral rights. The family then partnered with a Houston company called Calumet to drill on one site in the preserve.

In 1988 the Collier family swapped 108,000 acres in the area plus $35 million for 68 acres of federal land in Phoenix. It was the largest interstate land swap in U.S. history. The state of Florida then bought more land from other property owners, bringing Big Cypress a total of 200,000 additional acres.

Seven years after the Arizona deal, the Colliers tried to arrange another swap -- this time for their oil rights. Roy Cawley, a consultant for the family, met with U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and reviewed federal assets. The government appraised the Collier mineral rights at $250 million to $450 million. The family proposed a trade involving the soon-to-be decommissioned Orlando Naval Training Center and several other California bases, but the deal fell apart.

The Colliers, who had delayed exploration during negotiations, applied for permits to look for oil. Multiple state and federal agencies are now reviewing them. By law any exploration plan must include efforts to protect endangered species such as the Florida panther and the red-cockaded woodpecker, whose habitat includes some of the proposed sites. For example if panthers with radio tracking collars decide to make dens in the area, operations are supposed to cease, according to Patrick Kenney, a resource management specialist with the preserve. "Endangered species are one of our biggest concerns," he says.

After Kenney finishes an environmental impact statement on the first permit, perhaps by late summer, the public will have a chance to comment. Environmentalists will demand the government enforce its regulations as strictly as possible.

"The idea of extensive roadbuilding there is just unacceptable," Joe Browder says. "In that sort of a sensitive wetlands environment, if anybody wants to explore, they should be helicoptering in all of the equipment."

One remote possibility remains for staving off exploration in the preserve: swapping the mineral rights for the Homestead Air Base property. The Colliers have prepared a preliminary plan and are discussing the idea with government officials and environmentalists. The family envisions a residential and commercial development. Some environmentalists support the idea, and hope it could be an alternative to a commercial airport that a group of prominent developers, Homestead Airbase Developers, Inc. (HABDI), has proposed for the site. (The HABDI plan is on hold while the Air Force conducts a supplemental environmental impact study.)

Browder wants to ensure that the two nearby national parks, Everglades and Biscayne, are protected. "If the Colliers or anyone else proposes a kind of economic development that is not an airport or industrial development for Homestead ... that would be a much better use," Browder opines.

The Miami Sierra Club and the Tropical Audubon Society have both met with representatives of the Collier family to discuss the idea. "We haven't endorsed it one way or another," says Don Chinquina, Tropical Audubon's executive director. "It's just kind of intriguing at this point."

Yet county leaders, who are awaiting a federal transfer of the property, pledge it will be deeded to HABDI as promised. If not, litigation will likely follow.

Meanwhile Collier family representatives continue their efforts to secure permits. "What we won't do is stop the process, since we already did that once," Roy Cawley declares. The public will decide whether land will be swapped. "It's pretty much a community judgment about which way it goes," he adds.


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