Got back last week from southwest Florida, where I gave a series of lectures, including talks at Ding Darling NWR and the Southwest Florida Birding and Wildlife Festival.
It was, as most of my visits to Florida are, a mix of the sublime and the emotionally wrenching. It was wonderful to revisit favorite haunts like the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Collier-Seminole State Park with Amy and a couple of friends in tow, to watch big flocks of warblers and gnatcatchers moving through the pine flatwoods, or finally see my first wild indigo snake, an endangered species – though the fact that the snake was being eaten by a young red-shouldered hawk left us with decidedly conflicted emotions. It was nice to escape the snowy mountains for a few days, chasing purple gallinules and wood storks, watching short-tailed hawks, or finding a baby red rat snake.
But. There's always a very big "but" for me when it comes to visiting this part of Florida.
For a long time, this was the forgotten part of the Sunshine State, but that hasn't been the case for decades. Naples and Ft. Myers are metastasising with little apparent thought or planning, just a binge that will only end when every inch consumed by a tide of overpriced homes, golf greens and an endless, soulless swarm of Publix, CVS and Winn Dixies.
Yes, there are good things happening in southwest Florida for conservation, attempts to undo the wrongs of the past on the big chunks of land that are protected – like the ongoing work to close up 1960s-era drainage ditches in the old Golden Gate Estates boondoggle, which wrecked the hydrology of much of the Fakahatchee Strand, Florida Panther NWR and the Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay estuarine reserves.
The problem is, the insane rush to build on every square meter that isn't formally protected more than offsets the gains, and (though this is a small thing in the great scheme) manages to rob my time in Florida of much of its pleasure. For a week, virtually every road and highway I drove was under expansion – two-lanes going to four, four lanes to six, six lanes to eight. Coming down I-75 and then Rt. 951 toward Rookery Bay, the longest stretch I drove without passing new construction was maybe half a mile. The redundancy of it all surpasses understanding, but the most surreal moment came when I found myself looking at competing Dunkin' Donuts and Subway shops, facing each other across the intersection like mirror images.
I felt like an accessory to a crime just being there, and the obscene recklessness of it cast a pall on my mood much of the time. By the end of the week, driving back to the Ft. Myers airport past one new golf course subdivision and shopping mall after another, I'd seen enough. It was time to get back to Pennsylvania Dutch country, cold though it may be.
But I had one more gantlet to run. The airport, itself carved out of pine flatwoods, has of course become the nexus for still more development, and several patches ranging from a few dozen acres to more than a hundred were freshly scraped down to the sandy soil.
But what stopped me dead, made me close my eyes in a laugh-or-cry moment, was the yellow "Panther X-ing" highway sign - right next to the biggest clearing of all.
If I were a panther, I might throw myself in front of a car just to make an end of it. But no matter. Looks like Lee County will be able to retire that sign pretty soon anyway, and save itself a few bucks.