In eastern Collier County, 180,000 acres of privately owned agricultural fields, forests, and critical wetlands are already zoned to be developed like sprawling Golden Gate Estates (Estates), with all the impacts to wildlife and water quality that come with it. Such a future would likely fuel more harmful algal blooms and catastrophic wildfires, and doom iconic species like Florida panthers and black bears.
A proposal to be considered by the Collier Board of County Commissioners on June 8 presents a brighter future. The commission’s consideration of requests to adopt the Rural Land Stewardship Area (RLSA) improvements and to approve two villages — even with the poor siting of one near the Panther Refuge — is an opportunity we cannot miss. In that future, 134,000 of these acres will be permanently preserved, supporting essential habitat and wildlife corridors, and adding essential protection against flooding, fires, and harmful algal blooms. This investment in conservation is monumental, and will be the biggest private preserve east of the Mississippi.
Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), Audubon Florida (AF), Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE), and Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) advocate for Florida’s natural places and biodiversity — environmental conservation is central to our missions and is our reason for being. We support the RLSA because it drives unprecedented conservation benefits on private lands.
Although the RLSA isn’t perfect, it’s the best opportunity to keep Collier County’s environment healthy and wild. Like many, we wish that no further development would occur in the 180,000 acres of land within the RLSA, preferring this land be donated for perpetual conservation, or that government buy and preserve every acre. Unfortunately, there is no appetite for either of these multi-billion-dollar alternatives. The RLSA does what they won’t — preserves more than 130,000 acres for future generations.
To plan effectively for the future of eastern Collier County, we must plan wisely for expected population growth and protect the amazing nature of the eastern lands. The population within the RLSA at buildout is estimated to be 250,000 people in 2100. Some say that this is too much growth, but the alternative is far worse. Without the RLSA concentrating development in compact areas, taxpayers would be on the hook for infrastructure, services, and the congested road network needed to serve another Estates-style development. The Estates are building out quickly, and it is impossible to believe that these eastern rural lands would not follow suit. Without the RLSA, the build-out could occur with no conservation benefits, fracturing these essential wildlife corridors and fueling red tide and wildfires.
Our conservation organizations have been in court, commission chambers, and at the negotiating table, working on this balancing effort for over 20 years. In partnership with the major landowners, the state, and Collier County, we helped shape the RLSA through litigation and legislative advocacy.
Importantly, this partnership in no way binds our organizations from opposing inappropriate development or going back to court if necessary. We regularly share our opposition and concerns about parts of the RLSA with landowners and in public hearings. But through negotiations, the big picture has remained ecologically sound. The next generation of Collier citizens will see, at most, 45,000 acres of compact development built on cleared agricultural fields with limited natural resource value, in exchange for 134,000 acres of preserved wetlands, wildlife habitat, and farmlands.
As part of the current negotiations, we have obtained commitments for 12,300 acres of preserves, secured millions of dollars for wildlife crossings, implemented bear proof trash can requirements, and achieved dark sky lighting compliance. These components will limit human-wildlife conflict and ensure developments are compatible with neighboring conservation lands, including continued use of prescribed burning to maintain healthy habitats and protect residents from catastrophic wildfires.
The RLSA is not bringing people to Collier County: it is simply anticipating and planning for their inevitable arrival. The development patterns of the last 80 years have squeezed wildlife, fueled wildfires and flooding, and spawned red tides. Unless we want more of the same, we have to plan differently for the next 80. Wildlife, wetlands, and the quality of life of every Collier citizen depend on this visionary plan.