Corkscrew trust musical night is Saturday

Saturday at 7 “A Musical Night with Nature” will take center stage at the Estero Community Park amphitheater.

The benefit for the CREW Trust will feature Kat Epple with DL Turner on the harp, Chuck Grinnel on keyboard and Darrell Nutt on percussion. Also on the bill are the McIltrot Brothers and Susie Jennings. Bring a lawn chair, picnic and drinks — no alcohol please. Tickets are $20 and the amphitheater is at 9200 Corkscrew Palms Blvd.

Twenty years and 45,000 acres later, Ray Judah thinks the CREW Trust is one of the best environmental things Southwest Florida has ever seen.

Judah was a founding member of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed Trust and a rookie Lee County commissioner in 1989. The trust was a P3 - a public-private partnership - long before P3 became the latest governmental lingo.

“This is the big success story,” Judah said Thursday as the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council held its monthly meeting on CREW land, almost 20 miles east of Interstate 75 on Corkscrew Road.

“I’d hate to see Lee County without CREW.”

The concept of buying Florida swampland strictly for preservation was still a radical one in 1988, adopting the Bird Rookery Swamp proposal as a state Save our Rivers project. The proposal identified a 50,000-acre area that included Corkscrew Swamp, the Flint Pen Strand, Bird Rookery Swamp and Camp Keais Strand.

The CREW area has since grown to 60,000 acres. The trust has put together the purchase of about 27,000 acres itself. Partners like the Audubon Society, Lee County, the South Florida Water Management District, the Trust for Public Lands and Collier County have also contributed.

The wetland preserve protects and allows recharge of Southwest Florida aquifers in an area where most of the region gets its drinking water. It’s virtually all recognized as important habitat for the Florida panther, wood stork and numerous other protected species.

“The greatest thing of all was the partnerships,” said Ellen Lindblad, who’s now director of planning and environmental compliance for the Lee County Port Authority and who was CREW executive director from 1992 through 2005.

“It was visionary. In the late ‘80s nobody talked about public-private partnerships,” she said.

Lindblad should know. Before working for CREW she was a land buyer for Lee County. In the early days of CREW the county would buy land, sell it to CREW, then use the money from the sale to buy more land.

Funding came from a property tax of 20 cents for every $1,000 in taxable value that county commissioners approved in 1989.

“Most of them got voted out of office for doing it,” Judah said. “But they did it.”

Judah survived the vote and is still a Lee County commissioner. He’s also still a CREW Trust trustee.

“It’s truly one of the success stories in Southwest Florida,” he said.

In fact the CREW land is the largest contiguous remaining wetland system in Southwest Florida.

“Just look at Google Earth,” said Wayne Daltry, another founding member of the trust. “You look down and see this huge wetland watershed fairly intact. Without CREW it would be a spiderweb of canals and ephemeral wetlands, with Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary an isolated area of limited ecological value.”

Daltry is smart growth coordinator for Lee County. When CREW was founded he was executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

Instead, the sprawling swamp area provides a connection that runs all the way from mitigation land south of Southwest Florida International Airport to the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve south of Alligator Alley.

“It was a moment whose time had come,” he said. “If we hadn’t moved on it at that time doing it today would be a fiction.”

Three key players found themselves on opposite sides of many issues before and since, Daltry said. Judah, former Water Management District governing board member Jim Garner and former Lee Commissioner Charlie Bigelow were hardly allies, he said. He also credited engineer Stanley Hole.

Then there was Ben Hill Griffin, II of agri-giant Alico, Inc. Griffin promised to sell the trust the 6,800-acre Corkscrew Swamp at below market prices, then died before the transaction was complete. Ben Hill Griffin III stood by his father’s offer.

“So many people were brought together for the common cause,” Lindblad said.

“When you think of the enormity of that project for this area, and it’s almost a sleeper. People don’t drive by it every day so they don’t see it and they don’t think about it. But it’s one of the success stories.”

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