Destiny’s death buys time for a Florida frontier and the birth of conservation movements

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vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida
Kevin Spear
Orlando Sentinel
The vast expanse of wildlands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. This scene is from deep within the property’s 40 square miles.

Ecology thinkers are pursuing wildlife corridors, innovative land purchases, and millions of dollars.

Wildlands with a tree in the middle
Orlando Sentinel
The expanse of wild lands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. This landscape picture here is from the neighboring of Three Lake Wildlife Management Area.

Anthony Pugliese III closed in 2005 on a $137 million purchase of 27,000 acres he called Destiny.

The property at Yeehaw Junction in south Osceola County is surrounded by large preserves and ranches. Destiny would be the first invasion of houses and businesses amid a landscape that connects the best environments of South and Central Florida.

“It was going to be like a can opener, prying its way for more development into one of the wildest frontiers left in the state of Florida,” said Carlton Ward Jr., a conservation photographer.

Like many Florida dreams, Destiny collapsed into a heap of recriminations and legal troubles. But its failure opened the door to transformation of the 27,000 acres into DeLuca Preserve.

Pugliese was then a veteran South Florida developer from Delray Beach. His partner was Fred DeLuca, co-founder of Subway restaurants, who was cited by Forbes magazine then as being worth $1.5 billion and the world’s 512th-richest person.

Fred DeLuca smiling into camera
Candice Choi/Associated Press
One of the developers behind the proposed Destiny project was Fred DeLuca. In this 2014 photo, DeLuca, a Subway co-founder, poses for a photo at a Subway restaurant in New York. DeLuca died in 2015 of cancer. He was 67.
Thomas Pelham looking into the camera
Julie Fletcher
Orlando Sentinel
Thomas Pelham is the former head of the Florida Department of Community Affairs. He and the agency were instrumental in slowing the progress of Destiny development. Photo taken in 2007.
Anthony V. Pugliese pointing at a map
Alan Diaz/Associated Press
This is Anthony V. Pugliese in a photo taken in 2007. He was one of the developers behind the would-be Destiny project. Pugliese is pointing to a map of Destiny.
Randy Johnson speaking into a microphone
Phil Coale/Associated Press
Randy Johnson, seen in this 2005 photo, is a former, Republican state representative from Winter Garden and chief operating officer for the Destiny development project.

The tract they acquired had been a quarter of the 100,000-acre ranch assembled in the 1930s by Latimer “Latt” Maxcy, who died in the 1970s as a titan among Florida ranchers.

Latt Maxcy Corp. believed the 27,000-acre sale was the region’s largest land deal since Walt Disney bought his kingdom. “At this time,” the corporation said when the deal closed, no details had been “released as to the buyer’s plans for the property.”

That would come a year later when Pugliese and DeLuca unveiled their ambitions, including features to attract a quarter-million residents.

Huge risks

They designed the community for canals, waterborne taxis powered by electricity, health clinics for the boomer generation, organic restaurants, a biomedical research center and a biomass energy plant.

Pugliese said the location, the Yeehaw Junction of three major highways, was an “aligning of the stars.”

Former President Bill Clinton’s foundation pledged backing for Destiny as one of 16 worldwide projects fighting climate change.

But the proposed development was viewed as an abomination by the Florida Department of Community Affairs. DCA was the state’s vaunted watchdog for growth and development regulations.

There was a reason the per-acre price of the would-be city was relatively cheap at less than $5,000. The land had no development permissions and was far from government services.

DCA sparred with Destiny at every juncture. Then came more resistance to the project.

The housing bubble burst and the Great Recession began in 2007. Proposed developments across Florida bled out.

“Our lenders pulled out of the deal,” Pugliese told the Tampa Tribune in 2011. “They pulled out for other reasons, but was a contributing factor because we could have got it done.”

Destiny was among the last to implode.

“There were huge risks,” said Randy Johnson, chief financial officer for the project. “We were trying to entitle land to open up millions of square feet of commercial and thousands and thousands of home sites in a piece of property that was well removed.

“It was a very aggressive, and I thought very forward-thinking move to try to take advantage of the last, really major intersection — a north, south, east, west intersection — in Florida.

“We were slowed down by DCA and there’s no question about that,” Johnson said. “Of course, what stopped the project was the economy.”

The partners tore into each other with allegations of wrongdoing.

Destiny’s visionary, Pugliese, was sentenced in 2015 to six months in jail for defrauding DeLuca, who had died of cancer a few months earlier and whose estate took ownership of the land.

“Yeehaw Junction is rural, almost wilderness and no place for urban development,” said Thomas Pelham, DCA secretary and vocal foe of Destiny when it was in play.

UF/IFAS sign in a field
Orlando Sentinel
A University of Florida sign for DeLuca Preserve stands near Yeehaw Junction in south Osceola County and 70 miles south of Orlando.

Former Gov. Rick Scott later canceled DCA, calling it a job killer.

Pelham retired with a measure of solace.

“Frankly,” he said this summer, “I am gratified ultimately for all of the forces that were opposed to a very, very bad project.”

Hibernating giant

At the least, many environmentalists figured, Destiny’s death bought time to keep one of Florida’s last frontiers alive.

“I don’t know if I was ecstatic as much as ‘thank God,’” said Julie Morris, who grew up on ranch and natural spaces and has worked for government and nonprofit conservation groups.

Julie Morris leaning against a fence
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Julie Morris, Florida program manager for the National Wildlife Refuge Association and director of the Florida Conservation Group, at a ranch in Ona, Florida, on Wednesday, November 3, 2021.

“I drive by it all the time and all I could think about for years was, if this goes for development, I think I used the phrase that we might as well pack up and go home,” Morris said.

As financial markets contracted, strangling development for years, the rectangular giant hibernated.

A short side, about 4 miles north and south along U.S. 441, reveals longleaf forest and oak hammocks. A long side, of nearly 9 miles east and west along S.R. 60, shows ailing citrus groves, cattle and scattered tree lines.

Little changed of those views. But there was a pulse.

Jorge Poll, a caretaker, oversaw crews that ignited planned fires, the essential tool for helping nature not become overgrown with weeds and invasive trees. That’s often a fate for failed development tracts.

Destiny remained fit for flora and fauna.

Wild turkeys in a field
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
A flock of wild turkeys at DeLuca Preserve near State Road 60 on Monday, November 8, 2021.

Also, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists were searching discreetly behind Destiny’s barbed wire and within other ranches of the area for endangered species. Not all rural-lands owners care to be known as domains of federally watched critters.

“We were doing it out of respect for the landowners,” said Larry Williams, the agency’s Florida director of ecological services. “They wanted it that way.”

Conservation science

Meanwhile, revolutionary considerations for the state’s natural environments were gaining acceptance within ivory towers and government halls.

For a long time, natural lands were acquired for conservation if they were beautiful, supported a lot of game or wildlife, or featured one of Florida’s magnificent springs.

There wasn’t priority for how a parcel if bought and protected would lift the ecological value of a surrounding landscape.

Increasingly, however, ecologists would contend that healthy nature hinges on linking protected lands together as a necklace of gems across a region.

Larry Harris smiling into the camera with a field in the background
Courtesy Photo
Larry Harris, a career professor at the University of Florida, was one the early thinkers in preserving landscape on a large scale to protect wildlife and habitats. Harris died in 2010. – Original Credit: Family of Larry Harris

One proponent, Reed Noss, earned his doctorate in wildlife ecology in the 1980s at the University of Florida.

Noss’ mentor was professor Larry Harris, who grew up on an Iowa farm. He graduated from college and served with the Peace Corps in Tanzania in the 1960s researching wildlife and creating a major game reserve. He later earned a doctorate in ecology and joined UF as a professor in 1972.

As one of Florida’s earliest scholars on the subject, Harris, who died in 2010, devoted himself to conservation of corridors between parks, preserves and refuges.

Harris’ focus on conservation corridors traces to back to Tanzania, said his son, Larry Harris Jr., a Tallahassee lawyer. “That’s where he really started to think about what it means and all the implications.”

map depicts the most current version of the critical links between major conservation lands
Angeline Meeks/Archbold Biological Station
This map depicts the most current version of the critical links between major conservation lands, all part of an effort to create wildlife corridors from the Everglades to the far west Panhandle. The map is a vision from the Florida Wildlife Corridor, Florida Ecological Greenways Network, UF Center for Landscape Conservation Planning and Florida Natural Areas Inventory.

As his student, Noss rendered the first serious maps of conservation corridors in Florida, which were followed by increasingly precise and data-infused iterations from others.

The rationale for linking together natural places solidified as still another pivotal, conservation measure gained acceptance.

Saving ranchlands

With the state facing a tsunami of development, it was clear to many that government and environmental groups could not buy and safeguard enough acreage nearly fast enough.

There had to be another approach, another ally. And there was.

Agriculture historically has had a part in spoiling some of the state’s gems, such as Central Florida’s huge Lake Apopka and South Florida’s Everglades.

But another member of the agriculture family has been running cattle for hundreds of years across largely native terrain.

Ranchlands vary in environmental quality and some, while not pristine, have healthy, biodiverse ground cover of grasses, flowering plants and low shrubs.

Tad Corrigan outside a barn with dogs and a horse
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Tad Corrigan leads out a horse at his ranch near Yeehaw Junction on Nov. 8, 2021.

“If you manage your property correctly, good things happen,” said Tad Corrigan, whose family owns large ranch tracts near DeLuca Preserve. “If you don’t do that, your land will look pretty damn bad pretty quickly.”

A head of cattle in a field
Orlando Sentinel
Cattle at Buck Island Ranch on Nov. 3, 2021.
green heron on a fence
Orlando Sentinel
A little green heron at Buck Island Ranch on Nov. 3, 2021.

A flagship of the concept is Buck Island Ranch, northwest of Lake Okeechobee and south of Yeehaw Junction. It is owned by Archbold Biological Station, a nonprofit think tank for preservation of Florida wildlife and habitats.

The 10,500-acre ranch has been a demonstration project since the late 1980s, making the scientific and practical case for ranchers and for environmentalists that cattle and caracaras can amble around in harmony on the same patch of pasture.

In the early 2000s, government agencies ramped up efforts to acquire ranchlands. However, they wouldn’t necessarily purchase ranches outright, only their legal rights for housing or other developments.

That approach enabled ranchers to stay in their stirrups as they became environmental guardians.

The family-owned Adams Ranch has engaged in many such transactions and now has 8,000 acres of ranchland in south Osceola County nearly adjoining DeLuca Preserve where development is prohibited.

“We are working on more with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and with the state of Florida,” said Mike Adams. “It just takes plenty of patience and the right property that fits the different programs.”

Zach Adams and father Mike Adams on horses
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Orlando Sentinel
Zach and his father, Mike Adams, of Adams Ranch on Nov. 8, 2021. The expanse of wild lands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. Adams Ranch neighbors DeLuca Preserve.

Wildlife corridors

For a time, the parallel approaches of linking together environmental jewels and relying on ranchlands as keepers of linkages had been constructs of PhD scientists.

Then came Ward, the conservation photographer. He is from a ranching family, a great-grandson of a Florida governor, a photo adventurer who in 2003 published “The Edge of Africa” from work in Gabon. With an articulate drawl, he befriends ranchers, biologists, environmentalists, politicians and media.

Kayakers in the water
George Skene
Orlando Sentinel
Carlton Ward Jr., standing, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus prepare to start their day in a 1,000-mile, 100-day journey from South Florida’s Florida Bay to Okefenokee Swamp at the Florida-Georgia border as part of a Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition in April 2012.

He preaches the sermon that the state can save itself, and he christened the road to salvation: Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Ward and cohorts organized expeditions, beginning in 2012, with marathon crisscrossing of the state’s wild places, including ranchlands whenever possible, on foot, bicycles, horses and kayaks. It was to draw public attention to the need to connect Florida’s landscapes.

In April, National Geographic published a 16-page story filled with Ward’s photos of Florida panthers. The presentation detailed the endangered animal’s need for wildlife corridors leading far north out of the Everglades.

“To make that possible, more conservation funding is needed to help landowners, mainly ranchers, prevent open spaces from becoming subdivisions, parking lots and roads,” the National Geographic article states.

$400 million

Ward handed out the article to lawmakers at their legislative session early this year. In April, they passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.

With the act, lawmakers ponied up $300 million from the Federal Coronavirus Recovery Fund and another $100 million in state revenues to underwrite the expansion and protection of wildlife corridors.

The allocation was an about-face for conservationists, who would no longer — at least for a few years — have to scrounge for cash to buy important parcels.

For Noss, the $400 million vindicated his collaboration from nearly 40 years ago that birthed momentum for wildlife corridors that take in natural areas or otherwise undeveloped lands.

True to his frustration over Florida’s conservation record, he worries that fine print, politics and connected entrepreneurs may direct the spending of that money and not science. “I was elated that finally this is happening but I was, frankly, suspicious,” Noss said.

map depicts wildlife and habitat corridors
National Geographic, April Issue
In April, National Geographic published a 16-page story filled with photos by Carlton Ward of Florida panthers. The story included this map, depicting wildlife and habitat corridors. The arrow just north of Lake Okeechobee Points toward DeLuca Preserve. Ward shared the National Geographic article with lawmakers, encouraging them to pass the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act this year.

Ward’s National Geographic story included a large, stylized map of wildlife corridors, identified with swooping arrows pointing north from the Everglades to Georgia swamps and Panhandle forests.

One arrow soars around and beyond Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch.

The arrow aims at a larger property also meant to be a working ranch combined with protected wildlife and habitat, DeLuca Preserve.

That name, of course, doesn’t guarantee preservation. Protection of DeLuca Preserve from inside its fences and from beyond has been an intriguing task still far from finished.

The University of Florida may have no right to develop its big tract. But the school could, if not careful, screw up the wildlife corridor that serves as the prime gateway between South, Central and the rest of Florida.

Kevin Spear has reported for nearly 30 years on Florida protection of environmental lands. He tent camped, explored and joined researchers at DeLuca Preserve.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.