Restoring the Western Everglades

Remembering a Boom-Time Boondoggle

In the late 1950s, one of Florida's most infamous swampland swindles was about to begin when Gulf American Corporation announced plans to build the "world's largest subdivision" – Golden Gate and Golden Gate Estates – on 113,000 acres of wetlands on the western edge of the Everglades. Special thanks to Dave Addison, biologist and co-director of Environmental Science at the Conservancy for providing this historical perspective on the largest environmental restoration ever.

Prospective buyers were lured to the swampland promoted as the “world's largest subdivision with enticing ads: "Be a Golden Gate guest and enjoy free gasoline, trading stamps, Florida oranges, free fishing (including bait and tackle!), a free auto tour of modern, elegant Naples, and a free private plane ride over Golden Gate!" Of course, plane rides were only offered during the winter season, when the swamp was dry.

Where Has All the Water Gone?

More than 813 miles of roads and 183 miles of drainage canals were constructed before the developer filed for bankruptcy in 1975. By then, more than 53,000 acres in the South Golden Gate Estates (SGGE) region had been sold to 17,000 land owners scattered around the world. The roads and canals radically altered the flow of water through Southwest Florida and together with the Faka-Union canal, drained an estimated 411 million gallons of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico.

With the influx of freshwater into the Gulf and into the rich estuaries of the Ten Thousand Islands, fish populations began to diminish. While these areas were flooded with too much freshwater, the Everglades themselves were being starved of its water. Groundwater levels dropped as much as six feet and most of the area became vulnerable to wildfires. The crisscrossing canals and roads also altered the pattern and timing of the flow of water to the adjacent wetland systems to the east, west and south.

The results suggest that the Golden Gate Estates development has resulted in annual costs and lost benefits of between $5,475,000 and $6,740,000. The largest economic impact from the Estates development was on sport fishing value, which has been estimated to have been reduced by several million dollars per year.

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