Out in a scrubby, muggy patch of former swampland, Jesse James Hardy owns everything under the sunrises that stretch from a horizon of slash pine and palm trees.

He owns all that's under the stars in the summer sky, including the millions of mosquitoes and gnats that swarm in the still air.

He owns a well he dug 60 feet down that provides what he calls the best-tasting water in Florida. And he owns a simple clapboard house that he put together himself -- after a wildfire devastated the last one.

"It ain't been an easy life, but I love it. I really do. This is my home," says Hardy, a 68-year-old former Navy SEAL. "I couldn't trade it for nowhere else. It's irreplaceable."

But Hardy's 160 acres sit in the path of what is perhaps the nation's most ambitious environmental project ever, a 30-year effort to restore the natural water flow to the Everglades.

For years, state officials have quietly negotiated with Hardy to come up with a price for a piece of land that many consider worthless -- and one man considers priceless. He has adamantly refused, even as the offers have doubled and tripled into the millions of dollars.

Restoring the Everglades means returning Hardy's land to its natural state as a flooded plain, before developers backfilled, dredged and carved canals through an ecosystem that once stretched uninterrupted from a chain of lakes near Orlando to the Florida Bay.

Backers say the project would revive the population of birds, fish and other wildlife essential for tourism, and improve the water supply for surrounding communities.

"There's a lot of overwhelming public benefit," says Ernie Barnett, the state Department of Environmental Protection's director of ecosystem projects.

But Hardy, who was recently treated for prostate cancer, insists he's staying put, even if it means passing up millions.

"It's nothing fancy, but what I'm telling you is I live all right," he says. "I don't have to have gold-plated plumbing to take a shower. I got it better than people living in town. Of course, a lot of people won't live like this."

Hardy's homestead on the edge of what were once Everglades wetlands is hidden 40 miles east of downtown Naples and seemingly a million miles from the development of Florida's southern coasts.

Directions to his place include a turn at a lonely stop sign and meander for miles along dirt roads marked only by a canal and a bridge.

A blue bucket, cracked down the middle, beckons visitors to his driveway. There are no street signs or numbers out here.

Hardy bought the property for $60,000 in 1976 from the wealthy Collier family, the county's namesake.

"This was, like, no-good land," Hardy says. "I bought it because it was cheap. . . . There wasn't any people here. It was just very serene, clean, fresh, quiet. It was just a real beautiful place."

Since then, Hardy has tamed his wilderness, largely for a 9-year-old boy he considers his son. Tommy Hilton and his mother, a family friend, came to live with Hardy five months after the boy was born.

Hardy says he and Tommy's mother, Tara Hilton, are not romantically involved. She works for him, helping him check the trucks that buy the lime rock on his property and haul it away. Disability pay from the military covers the rest of the bills.

Hardy says they raise Tommy together like any parents. "He's got everything he's ever wanted. What little boy wouldn't want to grow up here?"

Piles of toys -- model cars and trucks, a tent, a bicycle and a basketball hoop -- fill most of their home's front porch, where tattered window screens long ago gave up their fight against a steady stream of bugs.

"The dirtier you are the less they'll mess with you," Hardy says, unaffected by the hordes of sand gnats swarming about.

But the place, if anything, seems tidy. Hardy carefully wipes his sandaled feet on a doormat before taking the three steps into his home and has a laundry line full of clean gray T-shirts and camouflage pants -- his uniform of choice from 14 years in the Navy. He is slim and agile; only his scruffy gray beard makes him look the part of a rural recluse.

As his clash with the state garners more attention, Hardy has become sensitive to the way recent news stories depict him and his home. One referred to his "collections" as trash heaps.

"There ain't no trash around here," Hardy says defensively, as he swings his arm toward a yard full of old cars. "I happen to like old Chevrolets. I built that truck over there. And I use that one right there for parts. They all are here for a reason."

Without the luxury of electrical service, rows of propane tanks keep his refrigerator and stove running so he can make grits, sausage and eggs for breakfast before driving Tommy to a bus stop for school.

Solar power and a generator provide the energy for a window air-conditioning unit that's rarely used, a washing machine and heat in the cool winters.

"This is really nothing," he says of the modest home. "But it is something out here in the woods when you don't have much more than a handsaw and a hammer."

A few years back, when the Everglades restoration was just an idea on paper, the state offered Hardy $711,000 for the property.

Hardy still seems insulted by the proposition.

"They're wanting to get all the humans off the land and turn it back to wildlife, and they don't even know if it's going to work," he says. "They want to take this away from me and that little boy."

State officials have kept trying, offering to swap his land for a similar stretch a little farther from the Everglades.

They've gradually upped the ante until it reached $4.5 million last month -- a figure even state officials admit is probably more than the land is worth.

Hardy's friend Pat Humphries says the increasing offers make no difference.

"People think he's holding out for more money. But this land really means the whole world to him, second only to his son," says Humphries, whose husband trained in the SEALs with Hardy. "He's more of an environmentalist than anyone. He can live from the land, off the land. He's probably the last of a dying breed."

The latest offer is a fraction of the overall $8.4 billion restoration -- a project that aims to link a vast ecosystem of tranquil waters, saw-grass prairies and towering cypress trees.

Once restored, Hardy's property and the surrounding areas would rejoin Picayune Strand State Forest and link four valuable reserves that surround it, including the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge and the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Habitat would be restored for the endangered Florida panther, West Indian manatee and red-cockaded woodpecker, among other species.

Hardy's land is so critical to the start of the restoration that state officials have recently threatened to take him to court under eminent domain, which allows government to take private land for a public purpose, with compensation to the owner.

Gov. Jeb Bush and state environmental officials have said they want an agreeable solution without going to court. At a recent meeting in Tallahassee, they heard from Tara Hilton and Tommy, who went to plead Hardy's case as he recovered from cancer treatment. Tommy left his meeting with the governor impressed.

"Tommy told me, 'Dad, you're going to win. I could tell that he liked me. He had a nice, soft voice,' " Hardy said.

But Tommy remains about the only optimist as negotiations trudge along.

The more money state officials offer for his property, the more bitter Hardy becomes. He seems to relish his growing status as a folk hero and the many letters of support that have come from as far away as Alaska.

His dislike of government stems from his days as a young boy, when his father died and his mother received no help to support him and his brother.

"There was no food stamps. My mother washed clothes to take care of us," says Hardy, whose T-shirt picturing one of the seven dwarfs, Grumpy, seemed to mimic his mood. "They didn't give me nothing then. All they do is take away, take away."

But the disgust in his voice quickly fades as Hardy wanders around his property. He has a pond he hopes to turn into a fish-farming business, and another where he and Tommy fish from beneath a shade tree.

This land has become his life.

"The Everglades is 60 miles east of here. This has nothing to do with the Everglades," Hardy says. "I'm out here. Nobody even knows. Please, tell them, 'Please, just leave me alone.' That's all I want."

"It ain't been an easy life, but I love it. I really do. This is my home," says Jesse James Hardy, whose 160-acre property sits in the way of a project to restore the Everglades' natural water flow.Hardy shares this house with a 9-year-old boy and his mom. "What little boy wouldn't want to grow up here?" Hardy says.An abandoned property near Hardy's, part of an area targeted for restoration to a wetland state.