Job of a Lifetime


Wessel Retiring from SCCF

The Southwest Florida environmental and water quality community is losing a superstar, as Rae Ann Wessel, the Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) will retire on Friday, May 15!

“I am originally from Nice, France,” said Rae Ann, “so I have a dual citizenship. My parents traveled all around the world, and of course I went with them, so I ended up graduating high school in Paris, but they really wanted me to get my advanced education back in the United States, so – sight unseen – they sent me to Wittenberg University in Ohio, as they knew all about it, then I attained another degree from Duke University.”

Following her graduation, Rae Ann was to head to the West Coast to pursue a professional career, “but my parents had a friend in Fort Myers, and they needed to buy some United States property for tax purposes, so we came down for a visit and I ended up applying for some jobs and I got a position at the Marco Applied Marine Ecology Station, so rather than going out to the West Coast, I ended up on the West Coast of Florida, and I am still here 42 years later!” Rae Ann became affiliated with the SCCF sixteen years ago, spending the first two years on the Board of Directors before joining the staff, “though I had my first interaction with the SCCF in 1979 – in fact, the first SCCF Director, Dick Workman, was a good friend of mine, so I knew first-hand that it was a topnotch organization.”

So Many Other Things

While Rae Ann still loves working at the SCCF, “after 42 years, there are so many other things I want to do on my life list, and I want to do them while I am young and healthy enough! On top of that, this is just a good time to leave, because the SCCF has so many great things happening right now, with outstanding leadership, momentum, funding and projects. This however has been the job of a lifetime, and it never seemed like I worked one single day, I love it so much – sometimes I look out the window and notice it is getting dark and I see the clock and it is almost 8 and I can’t believe the day went by that fast, so it is wonderful to feel that passionate about what I do!”

As for retirement, Rae Ann has “no definite plans, except that I will do some traveling. I am not ruling anything out, but I am promising myself that I am not going to schedule anything for the first three months, as I have always been a very schedule-oriented person, and I want to take that time to not do anything specific and just let life happen for a change! I am so used to being task and goal-driven, and working under pressure, with so much on my plate that I have to move at 150-miles-per-hour with whatever is the current challenge that I want to see what the other side of that coin feels like. I do not have any plans to leave Southwest Florida, other than for traveling, as I have been here for so long now, but I will just have to see, as there are adventures yet to live. I don’t know what will be around that next corner, but I will know it when I discover it.”

When contemplating what changed the most concerning the Southwest Florida environment over the course of her career, “Everything,” Rae Ann concluded with a huge laugh! “That includes the good and bad categories. When I first moved down to Lee County, there were about 150,000 people; today there are over 750,000 and that does not count seasonals and tourists. One of the great things good was the Caloosahatchee River Watch, as that was the voice that this community needed, not only in terms of the river but for the western area of the Everglades and our ecosystem. All that population growth, however, not only here but statewide, led to the intensity of land use changes and that became a leading cause of what would ultimately become our water quality crisis.”

Rae Ann is cautiously optimistic that water quality is now finally turning the corner toward much-needed necessary improvements. “In the past few years, citizens locally and statewide finally stepped up with a strong voice to right the ship, but it will take a long time yet to do that, and in the meantime, our population will continue to grow, as more and more people are finding their own slice of Paradise, and when they first arrive here, they do not understand the threats to our ecological system. I can always tell a new citizen, because when someone from the media asks them who is to blame for our poor water, they say ‘Big Sugar!’ If it were that simple, we would have solved water a long time ago! You need to be here a little while before you realize that we are all part of the problem and we all need to be part of the solution. New residents always start from behind the curve so it is a constant mission to get them up to speed.”

Vote, Vote, Vote!

The aspect of the SCCF that Rae Ann will miss the most “are the great group of people I work with every day! They are dedicated, passionate, talented, feel just as strongly as I about the Southwest Florida environment, and we are truly a family. The Policy Directorship of the SCCF allowed me to be a voice in the Lee County community for the environment through engagement, to help explain the issues so that people understand them in the proper context, and to highlight the steps that we can all do to be a part of that solution, and that is the thing, other than the people, that I will miss the most.”

With retirement right around the corner, Rae Ann offers parting advice! “Just like you cannot purchase hurricane insurance in the middle of a hurricane, you can’t fix water quality only when we have Red Tide or Blue-Green Algae, so be just as proactive when conditions are good as you are when they go bad. To do that, however, you have to be very careful from where you get your information, as there are so many outlets these days, and not all of them are reliable, so cultivate your environmental relationships and engage with the right people, so that you can be sure you are getting the proper answers. Then Vote, Vote, Vote! That is your ultimate power, and unless you live in many other parts of the world, you don’t know how precious that right and power is, so use that freedom and opportunity wisely. Don’t ever say that it is too inconvenient to vote, because there are more ways to do so today than ever before, so don’t give up that right. Know your sources, study the candidates and measures, don’t surrender your voice, and be an informed voter!”