Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary - a rare treat
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Places like this are rare in the world.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: A Rare Experience
By Valerie Syren Friday, February 27, 2009
FORT MYERS — Taking a reprieve from writing about music and concerts, I have decided to focus on another aspect that influences my life – the environment that surrounds me. This region offers a wide array of ecological adventures, including the endless beaches that line the Gulf of Mexico and the pine forests that are dispersed throughout the inland areas.
Some of the more fascinating environments include southwest Florida’s wetlands, and one of the best ways to experience these pristine habitats is to take a walk through Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
I had the opportunity to speak with the Director of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Ed Carlson, about what makes Corkscrew unique. Carlson, who is a very tall, yet friendly gentleman, gave me some interesting and surprising facts about the area.
Since Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is owned by the Audubon Society, many people think that this piece of land was protected because of the variety of birds that live in the area. While the bird populations helped to draw tourists to the area, it was actually protected to keep the logging business out.
In the 1940s and 1950s, loggers had clear-cut much of the Fakahatchee Strand and they were moving north towards the Corkscrew Swamp. Carlson states that Corkscrew was a healthy wetland that was not being threatened by development, so people began a campaign to protect this region from the loggers.
“This was a forest protection initiative and it was a national campaign,” says Carlson. “People from all over the country had adopted this as a project. School children raised money and sent it to Audubon in Ohio.”
In 1954, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary was established to protect the last stand of old growth cypress in the state. It started with 4,000 acres and has grown to 13,000 acres.
The areas surrounding the Sanctuary, called the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), have slowly been acquired by the South Florida Water Management District’s Land Acquisition Program. So far, they have protected about 27,000 acres in addition to the Sanctuary’s 13,000 acres. This adds up to almost 40,000 acres of protected wetlands.
When asked if the Sanctuary receives any financial aid at the state or federal level, Carlson tells me that they do not. “We bring in our own funds from the admission fees, gift shop sales, and contributed income.” They occasionally apply for grants, including one that they have right now from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help study the wood storks.
Like many of the protected regions in Florida, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary lies right at the edge of agricultural, residential, and commercial development. This is an issue that the people of the Sanctuary have to battle constantly. Carlson states that it is “something that we work on every single day.”
Those involved with the Sanctuary take a good look at permit applications for development in this region. “We thoroughly inspect all of the permit applications to see if they have a negative impact on the watershed,” says Carlson. “We are particularly interested in how they will affect wetlands, surface water flow, ground water recharge, water quality and those kinds of things.”
This watershed includes an area far greater than the lands that are a part of CREW. Carlson tells me that “it includes the wetlands around Florida Gulf Coast University all the way east to Route 29, Immokalee and Lake Trafford, and then south down Immokalee Road into Golden Gate Estates and back to North Naples, and the whole coastal area from south Ft. Myers to North Naples.”
The total area consists of about 300 square miles.
Development is perhaps an environmentalist’s Public Enemy Number One, and Florida has its fair share of these enemies. Many developers mitigate for the lost natural ecosystems that they destroy in the process of building, but often times, this is not enough.
“What would be ideal would be a moratorium on destroying wetlands or impacting wetlands,” says Carlson. Wetlands that are in perfect condition are protected by the existing rules, but many of these areas are not in perfect condition. “The problem is that so many wetlands have been degraded for some reason, either by historic drainage where the hydrology was altered, or some exotic plant infestation.”
This gives the developers an opportunity to go ahead with their plans. Because of this, Carlson would like to see the rules tightened up to include all wetlands.
While environmentalists strive to protect natural lands that are prone to development, at least they can rejoice in the fact that there are places like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that will always exist.
“This place is unique in that you cannot have this old growth experience anywhere else,” Carlson states. “We’re still healthy here, we know that we’ve successfully protected this place…you’re seeing a real natural system that way it’s always been.”
To experience this rare and wonderful region, get on Immokalee Road and head east. It is about 15 miles from the Interstate and it’s worth the drive.
“It’s unique and it’s beautiful and it’s inspirational,” Carlson says. “We’ve invested a tremendous amount of money into a state-of-the-art facility that is all handicap-accessible. We have 2 and a quarter mile boardwalk that takes you two hours to walk. It’s very safe and it’s very beautiful and we’re open everyday of the week; we’re like a National Park.”