Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park breaks ground on $1.5 million upgrade

Lance Shearer
Dignitaries including State Senator Kathleen Passidomo, Florida State Park Service Director Eric Draper, Collier Commissioner Donna Fiala, and Tom Maish of the Friends of Fakahatchee toss ceremonial shovels full of dirt to begin the project. Government officials and the Friends of Fakahatchee broke ground Friday morning on a $1.5 million enhancement for the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.

On Dec. 7, Florida state officials were digging up the Fakahatchee swamp – and that’s a good thing.

After decades of the government working hard to literally “drain the swamp,” as well as denude it of centuries-old cypress trees and fill it in to make way for human development, the pendulum has swung. At the ceremony near the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk along the Tamiami Trail on Friday morning, dignitaries including Florida State Park Service Director Eric Draper and State Senator Kathleen Passidomo gathered to celebrate the breaking ground for a million and a half dollars’ worth of improvements to the boardwalk.

A crowd of about 80 participated, including many of the movers and shakers whose volunteer work, lobbying, and contributions were instrumental in preserving the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida’s largest, educating the public about it, and shaking loose the dollars in the state budget to make the long-overdue enhancements.

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One thing they won’t be changing is the swamp itself – and that’s another good thing. Some of the cypress trees are 600 years old, and tower overhead, along or even through the planks under your feet, with the boardwalk built right around several of them. Many of the cypress are girdled with massive, sinuous strangler figs, which manage in this climate to coexist with their host.

What will change is access, accessibility, and viewability of the natural surroundings. The Boardwalk Expansion Project will make improvements to the facilities and entrance to the 2,300-foot wooden boardwalk. These include safer vehicular access, sanitary public restrooms, and an expanded parking lot with deceleration lanes that will end the necessity for those using overflow parking to walk across the federal highway, with cars whizzing by at 60 to 70 mph.

A suspension pedestrian bridge will take visitors across the canal that parallels the road, to an interpretive center containing information and exhibits about the boardwalk and the swamp, before visitors reach the boardwalk itself. Not included in the initial phase, but awaiting additional funds, one day an elevated “epiphyte walk,” 20 feet up in the tree canopy, will literally give visitors a bird’s eye view of the swamp.

A 20-mile long ribbon of remote backcountry habitat, the Fakahatchee is managed to balance human access with preservation, offering habitat for dwindling populations of endangered creatures such as the Florida panther, as well as being home to the largest, most diverse collections of orchids in the country and perhaps the world.

Much of the park is accessed off of State Road 29, between Everglades City and Immokalee, including swamp walks which give visitors the chance to wade up to one’s waist in a cypress swamp. The boardwalk along U.S. 41, the “Tamiami Trail,” represents the “human access” side of the swamp, and even before the expansion project work is begun, hosts approximately 100,000 visitors each year.

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Along with the state officials, attendees heard from Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, Patrick Higgins, president of Friends of Fakahatchee, the park’s citizen support group, and Tom Maish. A former president of the Friends, he is chairman of the group’s Boardwalk Vision Committee, and along with tireless efforts from leading swamp walks to buttonholing legislators, along with his wife Judy personally contributed $150,000 to make the improvements a reality.

Park manager Steve Houseknecht, architect David Corban, who designed the facilities with environmental concerns in the forefront, and others lined up for the ceremonial groundbreaking, a total of 11 people lined up with gold-painted shovels. That number was only a fraction of all those who brought the project from dream to reality, said Draper, who noted those present “stand in the footsteps of other leaders” who went before. “Today we’re laying more footsteps, literally building a path for people to walk.”

Before being tapped to lead the state’s park service, Draper spent 17 years leading Florida Audubon, and is intimately familiar with the natural areas of Southwest Florida. He said that the new facilities will help make more people familiar with why these habitats are important.

“You only protect what you understand. Fakahatchee is our largest state park, but it’s been access-limited. Now, we’re making it easier for people, giving more people the chance to experience this beautiful piece of the Everglades.” As he spoke, two roseate spoonbills performed a fly-by, which stopped birdwatcher Draper in his tracks, and as he pointed out, are signs of a healthy ecosystem.

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Passidomo, who was instrumental in getting the appropriation approved, spoke a little of the legislative “sausage-making” that went into getting the Fakahatchee enhancements funded, noting with pride that “only one other parks project got funded” that year – and they were both in her district. She also thanked State Representative Bob Rommel, who was unable to attend.

The Fakahatchee boardwalk is one of just a handful of opportunities to easily take a tour of how Southwest Florida looked before man altered the landscape.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is on the north side of U.  S.41 (Tamiami Trail), 25 miles east of downtown Naples, and about 7 miles west of SR-29. To learn more about guided tours or to support the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, go to www.orchidswamp.org.