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avatarUdut, Kenneth -- on Apr. 20 2009, from Golden Gate Estates, Naples, FL
Founder of this Naples site of NeighborHelp Referrals.


COLLIER COUNTY — In 1969, plans to build a jetport along the Collier-Dade County line spurred a seminal fight in the history of Everglades conservation.

It galvanized nationwide support for the River of Grass and, with key backing from sportsmen’s groups, led to the creation of the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1972.

Forty years later, only an inkling of those heady plans for aero-glory sits within the boundaries of the national preserve north of U.S. 41 East: a lone runway with an underwhelming name, the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport.

The jetport is largely forgotten, but that’s about to change.

Miami-Dade County, which still owns almost 25,000 acres at the jetport, is teaming up with Collier County to push plans to turn a 1,600-acre swath of swamp between the runway and U.S. 41 into an off-roader’s paradise complete with a visitor’s center, campgrounds, RV parking, fishing piers, an archery range, hiking trails and — most unsettling for some — trails for off-road vehicles.

Hearings are tentatively set for later this year on Miami-Dade’s proposal to amend the Collier growth plan to create the Dade-Collier Cypress Recreation Area.

If the new plans eliminate illegal off-roading in the preserve, the jetport might help solve a conflict that was unforeseen when the preserve was created, said Joe Browder, the leader of the dual campaigns to defeat the jetport and create the Big Cypress.

Or maybe not.

“I think it could get very controversial if it’s not planned right,” Browder said.

Today, about 54,000 off-highway vehicles are registered within 100 miles of the jetport site, and riders are increasingly squeezed for places to go.

Too many people have been injured in off-highway vehicle accidents along roadways in Dade County, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz wrote in a letter seeking grant funding from the Florida Department of Agriculture for the jetport plans.

“This site can provide a safe place for children and adults to ride ATVs and dirt bikes, with designated trails and a family-friendly atmosphere,” Diaz wrote.

The jetport already is criss-crossed with trails, the runway has interrupted sheetflow and the recreation park would come with environmental restoration, backers say.

The proposal is likely to be a tricky sell to state and federal environmental permitting agencies, but the plan is getting traction in Collier County.

“If we can’t do it at the jetport, I seriously doubt we’ll be able to do it anywhere in South Florida,” Collier County Commission Jim Coletta said.

Collier County has been engaged in a years-long battle with the South Florida Water Management District over the district’s unfulfilled 2003 pledge to find an ATV riding site in return for the county turning over roads in the Picayune Strand State Forest for an Everglades restoration project.

County commissioners have directed Collier parks officials to work with Miami-Dade County on the project and to ask the water management district for help paying for the recreation area.

“They’re obligated to us big time on this one,” Coletta said.

So far, though, the water management district is keeping its distance from the jetport plans.

Instead, the district remains focused on providing an ATV riding site at a disposal site for muck dredged from Lake Trafford in Immokalee, said Clarence Tears, director of the Big Cypress Basin, the local arm of the water management district.

“We’re focused on the Lake Trafford site unless Collier County and Miami-Dade can come up with a better solution,” Tears said.

Coletta calls the Lake Trafford site “an unknown quantity,” citing questions about paying for arsenic contamination cleanup.

Tears said the district also is considering a temporary riding site in Hendry County where the district is planning to build a reservoir to capture water from the Caloosahatchee River.

The district also had been in talks with a private landowner, but that land no longer is available, Tears said.

It remains to be seen whether ATV riders, who have revolted against the district’s failure to find a riding site, would embrace the jetport plan as a solution.

“You’re not going to please everyone but you have to start somewhere,” Collier Sportsmen’s Club member Brian McMahon said.

Miami-Dade has presented plans for the jetport recreation area to an off-road vehicle advisory group at the Big Cypress National Preserve.

The preserve already has a system of designated trails that were at the center of a protracted legal dispute with off-roaders.

Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos wrote in an e-mail that he is open-minded about the jetport plans.

The preserve will yield to any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerns about the plan’s effect on endangered wildlife that might use the site, he wrote.

Ramos commended South Florida elected officials and agency officials for trying to find a “safe and appropriate place for people to ride their ORVs” (off road vehicles).

“Their success in developing appropriate ORV riding opportunities somewhere in South (Florida) will alleviate some of the pressure we experience here at Big Cypress,” Ramos wrote.
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