Friends of Fakahatchee: Dedicated to financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and educate the public about its importance. Banner photo by Dennis Goodman
About the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
From Exploitation to Preservation
The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is perhaps the best examples of subtropical, strand swamp in the United States. The Fakahatchee Strand is a linear swamp forest, approximately twenty miles long by five miles wide and oriented from north to south. The Strand harbors one of the largest concentrations and diversity of native orchids in North America, and supports numerous rare and endangered animal species. It is also one of the core areas of the current range of the Florida Panther.
The Strand’s 85,000 acres are part of the main drainage slough of the Big Cypress Swamp. The Fakahatchee Strand is linked hydrologically to the Everglades system and is particularly important to the estuarine ecosystem of the Ten Thousand Islands area.
The logging of the Strand from 1944 to 1954 resulted in the felling of thousands of cypress trees that were hundreds of years old. To remove this valuable timber, miles of tram roads were constructed in what is now the Preserve. A few of these are kept open for park maintenance and hiking, providing today’s visitors with access to this unique ecosystem.
Although there is limited access to the preserve, visitors can see some areas by driving on Janes Scenic Drive, an 11-mile-long gravel road. However, at Big Cypress Bend, on the north side of US-41 (Tamiami Trail), about 7 miles west of SR-29, visitors can walk along a 2,000-foot-long boardwalk to experience the beauty of a magnificent old growth cypress forest.
The Everglades: A Puzzle with Many Pieces
Lance Shearer’s 3-part Everglades Series – Naples Daily News, September 2016 – is a good primer on the hydrology, history, and politics of the Everglades region. Any description of the Everglades should include the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and this one does, with a detailed run down on its “20-mile ribbon” of state jurisdiction.
Shearer does an admirable job of showing how the various parcels of public land throughout South Florida were acquired, with sometimes unexpected results. Today both the railroads and the old grown cypress are gone from the Fakahatchee, but the slough and 85,000 acres of conservation land remain, and the neighboring Picayune parcel is slowing removing evidence of shady real estate dealings of the past.
The author’s final article gives a menu of ways for visitors to get “up close and personal” with the natural surroundings, spotlighting the Fakahatchee’s swamp walks and Big Cypress Bend boardwalk. Read all three articles and we guarantee you will know something new about the unique landscapes of the Everglades.
- The Everglades: Past is known; future up in the air and down in the water
- The Everglades: Crazy quilt in the wilderness
- The Everglades: A multitude of ways to get wild
Shared with permission
Lance Shearer, Correspondent, Naples Daily News
Past to Present
The story of the creation of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is the story of Florida: unbridled resource exploitation, irresponsible development, intrigue, and champions. In the end, we win and nature wins.
The Logging Era – 1913–1948
In 1913, the Fakahatchee Strand was purchased by the Lee-Tidewater Cypress Company for $1.4 million, with the intent of logging the cypress.
Major logging did not occur, however, until 1944 as a war-time measure. Major logging operations continued until the early 1950s.
The lag time for commencing major logging operations may have been due to the real estate boom of the mid-1920s and the subsequent depression years. It has been reported that in 1922 an agent for Henry Ford obtained an option to purchase the Strand with the intention of giving it to the state as a park, but the offer did not materialize.
Preservation Attempts Fail – 1948–1964
By 1948, the southern 10 miles of the Fakahatchee Strand had been logged when Dan Beard, the superintendent of Everglades National Park, inspected the Strand and recommended it for a National Monument.
At the time, approximately one million board feet of cypress per week were being removed from the Strand. It was pointed out that the density of mammalian life found in the Strand was greater than that of the Everglades National Park, including black bear, Florida panther, mangrove fox, and a wide diversity of other wildlife. Beard also commented on the picturesque beauty of the area.
While funding and authority to acquire the area did not materialize in the late 1940s, another attempt was made in 1964, under urging of Mel Finn, a Miami attorney and conservationist. However, once again the effort to preserve the Strand failed.
Selling Swamp Land in Florida – 1966–1972
In 1966, the Lee-Tidewater Cypress Company sold the Strand to the Gulf-American Land Company, which later became G.A.C. Properties, Inc. (GAC). GAC purchased the property with the intention of marketing the land as a part of Golden Gate Estates. Much of the property was sold in 1 1⁄4-acre lots. During this period, three sections of the Strand were donated to Collier County for a park.
Florida Legislature Sets the Stage for Conservation – 1972
In 1972, the Florida legislature passed the Land Conservation Act (Chapter 259, F.S.), which had as its purpose the conservation and protection of environmentally unique and irreplaceable lands. Later that year, Florida voters approved a bond issue of $240 million which set in motion Florida’s first major environmental land acquisition program known as the Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) Program. The Program was administered through the Div. of Recreation and Parks of the Dept. of Natural Resources.
Forty Years of Acquisition Begins
Negotiations with GAC began in 1972. GAC attempted to regain possession of lots it had sold and offered to sell its holdings to the State. Negotiations were temporarily halted when GAC was prosecuted for alleged dredge and fill violations at Cape Coral in Charlotte County. To resolve this litigation, GAC offered to pay for damages by trading land in the Fakahatchee Strand. Settlement of the litigation resulted in approximately 9,523 acres south of US Hwy 41 being acquired.
The first purchase of land creating Fakahatchee Strand State Park, made in June 1974, was the beginning of a continuous acquisition effort which is ongoing to this day. By 1978 approximately 44,000 acres had been acquired. As of January 1, 1999, the Preserve consisted of 69,896 acres. Of this, approximately 34,727 acres were acquired under the EEL Program. As that program came to an end, the acquisition effort was assumed by the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) Program. Under the CARL Program, the project has been expanded to include lands between the older project and SR 29.
All this time, approximately 16,700 acres remain to be acquired. Since 1990, most lands have been acquired with Preservation 2000 funding. Hopefully, this noteworthy acquisition effort will continue with the use of these funds or successive funding until all reasonable efforts to complete the project have been exhausted.
©2008 Franklin Adams, Friends of Fakahatchee
A History of Conservation Champions
Henry Ford, winter resident of Fort Myers, offers to buy the Strand and give it to the State of Florida. The State refuses, citing need to keep the Fakahatchee on the tax roles and plentitude of ‘swamp land.’
Garden clubs launch an unsuccessful movement for protection in response to the removal and sale of Royal Palms.
The Lee Tidewater Cypress Company establishes headquarters at Copeland; the Federal government wants cypress for war-time construction of wooden boats.
Public response to old-growth logging emerges in Media as Everglades National Park is dedicated by Harry S. Truman. The Fakahatchee just misses being included within its boundaries.
National Parks Association brings attention to destruction of Fakahatchee. Dan Beard, first superintendent of Everglades National Park, is sent to investigate, and recommends the Strand be included in the park. This recommendation was tabled.
As the Fakahatchee is totally logged out, National Audubon Society manages to snatch a bird rookery swamp from destruction, now known as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Orchid lover Melvin “Mel” Finn, a Miami attorney, founds the Florida Nature Conservancy. He attempts to save the Fakahatchee Strand from land speculators, but Gulf American Land Corporation buys the land at $100 per acre (on paper) from Lee Tidewater Cypress. Lots are sold in “Remuda Ranch Grants” for $2500 per acre. The central building of the Port of the Islands was part of the development plan.
Congressman Paul Rogers introduces bill to declare the Fakahatchee a National Wilderness Monument, but Biscayne Park was selected instead. Gulf American Land Corporation begins to dig drainage canals, and is cited for illegal dredge and fill in Cape Coral.
Mel Finn brings State dignitaries and agency heads to tour the Strand, convincing all it was worthy of protection.
Mel Finn dies of complications of heart surgery.
State of Florida agrees to settle litigation with Gulf America Land Corporation by accepting holdings in the Fakahatchee south of US 41. The state also passes the Land Conservation Act, creating the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, providing funds for acquisition.
The first purchase of Fakahatchee land for creation of the park was made in June. The acquisition effort continues to date.
Nathaniel Reed, Joel Kuperberg, and others arranged for a memorial to Mel Finn. On April 24, 1999, the monument that stands in front of the Park office in Copeland was dedicated to memorialize Mel Finn’s many years of devotion to his beloved “Fahkahatchee,” as he spelled it.
The Mel Finn Award
Mel Finn has been called “the Father of the Fakahatchee” in recognition of his personal crusade to save the Fakahatchee Strand, and his efforts to convince the State to preserve this special place through funds to acquire it.
Mel Finn (1916-1971) was a Miami lawyer and conservationist. He knew that despite the environmental damage caused by the logging of the 1940s and 1950s, the Fakahatchee was a unique place worth saving. He worked hard to raise public awareness of the fact that the Fakahatchee was home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals. He personally spoke to politicians and environmental groups about the need to save the Fakahatchee. He led a delegation of political dignitaries into the swamp to show them the beauty of the place firsthand. Although his dream was not realized during his lifetime, his determination and tenacity ultimately led to the Fakahatchee becoming a state preserve.
On April 24, 1998, the Friends of the Fakahatchee dedicated a plaque to Mel Finn. It is prominently located on a large piece of limestone in front of the park office.
The Friends also created a special award in his honor, called “The Mel Finn Award.” This award is given to individuals who have given their time to benefit the Fakahatachee and who, as it states on the award, “reflect the spirit of the founding father of the FSSP.”
2016 Patrick Higgins
2015 Howard Lubel
2014 Bill Mesce
2013 Glen Stacell
2012 Caryl Tilden
2011 Tom Maish
2010 Marya Repko
2009 Nelson Tilden
2008 Allen Caldwell
2007 John Elting
2005 Franklin Adams