The Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) is disappointed to learn that the major landowners in eastern Collier County have withdrawn their application for a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This HCP would have provided federal oversight and landscape-scale conservation to better protect the endangered Florida panther and many other species in a region that is currently targeted for development.
Since 90% of the rural lands in eastern Collier County are privately owned, experts have long recognized that there is a need to work with these private landowners to protect not only the panther, but other native wildlife. In 2008, a consortium of environmental groups, including FWF, Audubon Florida, Audubon of the Western Everglades, and Defenders of Wildlife, engaged with these private landowners to request future development be mitigated through the creation of an HCP.
This HCP included measures to protect not only the very rare panther, but 18 other imperiled species. It would have permanently preserved 107,000 acres of land that provide valuable habitat and movement corridors for the Florida panther and other native wildlife.
While the HCP would have allowed for 45,000 acres of development, all of this development is still on pace to move forward with or without the HCP. With the HCP, however, development would have been clustered into areas of lesser conservation value and it would have permanently protected the remaining 107,000 acres of land from development.
Now that the HCP application has been withdrawn, development is moving forward without assurances for landscape-level protection. This means that we will need to confront every damaging project individually and hope the landowners voluntarily set aside land that would have been required by the HCP. This is a piecemeal approach with a project-by-project review process that does not consider cumulative impacts of the proposed projects and results in fragmentation of habitat.
The HCP would have allowed for a longer-term, more comprehensive approach at the landscape level to enable preservation of large swaths of private lands at no cost to taxpayers. Indeed, the HCP would have ensured that the most important habitats would have been protected from development projects forever.
With the current HCP application off the table, FWF is relieved that some landowners have expressed their commitment to continuing to work with conservation partners, including FWF, to implement the conservation provisions of the HCP as they move forward with individual development projects. FWF encourages the USFWS and the landowners to resolve issues that prevented the HCP from being adopted, and urges the landowners to re-submit an application to ensure protections for imperiled species on Collier County’s remaining private lands.