With concerns about public input and perhaps a healthy dose of misunderstanding between the parties, the Lee Board of County Commissioners tabled until at least November 15 a possible agreement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) over six new Southwest Florida Critical Wildlife Areas (CWA), including three Estero Bay islands.
Commissioners at their November 1 meeting were to discuss and transmit a letter to the FWC, stating their concerns over the recommended CWAs, including a controversial final sentence that indicates they cannot support the proposal, but they pulled the item before taking any official action.
The FWC identified specific islands within Pine Island Sound and Estero Bay for CWA designations. In the former, Broken Islands, Useppa Oyster Bar, and Hemp Key are the most critical ones. Similarly, the FWC emphasizes that the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve is equally as important, with the “Big Carlos Pass West of M-52,” “Coconut Point East,” and “Matanzas Pass” having the highest nesting bird totals. The remaining 150 islands in that stretch will not receive CWAs and remain available for access and recreation.
CWAs are a helpful tool to protect imperiled and endangered species. Coastal wildlife face a myriad of challenges from habitat loss, degradation and pollution, with CWAs a sensible approach to address the threat of human disturbance by providing a targeted refuge where wildlife can more successfully breed, roost and forage. Many species that utilize these islands are state-imperiled, like little blue, great blue and tricolored herons.
Public Input & Proper Research
In its draft, Lee County questions whether the public had enough opportunity to comment on the potential CWAs as well as if the FWC did enough research to prove the islands are naturally-unique enough to qualify. The Commissioners write that “this process has moved at a pace that has made the public and County uncomfortable about the proposed areas and minimized the opportunity to provide input at the formative stage. We feel there are still unanswered questions regarding this new initiative. Additionally we feel that the information provided to justify the establishment of these areas is insufficient; no substantive disturbance data has been provided.”
The draft continues to say that “a defined period of time for review and evaluation of actions is consistent with management of other species within Florida. Including a mandatory review will ensure appropriate FWC resources will be committed to properly implement and monitor the CWAs over time. If we manage this important initiative effectively we might be able to avoid negative public reaction that has accompanied manatee speed zones. We believe that with the proper information and outreach, the public will act favorably to the new ideas as they become familiar with them.”
In response, Jessica Reha, Conservation Associate for The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said that the FWC hosted three separate workshops in August to educate and allow the public to comment on the proposal. She pointed out that the South Florida Water Management District over a ten-year timeframe selected these six islands for the strongest level of support for conservation because they face numerous challenges such as habitat loss, degradation and pollution.
The Conservancy requested that Lee County Commissioners refrain from forwarding their draft to the FWC, and specifically asked them to delete the final sentence that reads “at this time we cannot support the establishment of these particular no entry zones” as that indicates outright opposition to the CWAs.
A Failure to Communicate
Speaking for the Lee County Commissioners, Chairman Frank Mann said that “we are going to pull the letter expressing our concern about this proposal and have our staff work with the FWC to make sure something good happens out of this.” Channeling his best Strother Martin impersonation while quoting the movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” Mann drawled that “what we have here I think is nothing more than ‘a failure to communicate’ and we need to find a way to move forward together without misunderstanding letters.”
He stated that Lee County will work with the FWC before this matter moves on to Tallahassee as partners and not opponents. “The two staffs should be able to settle this misunderstanding in one meeting to solve this and square everything away.” Chairman Mann then continued the matter until at least the next Lee Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, November 15.
The Conservancy feels that CWAs, in place since the 1990s, are essential to the success and survival of imperiled bird species while providing positive benefits and protection for these populations. Amber Crooks, Senior Natural Resources Specialist for The Conservancy, explained that the FWC can establish the CWAs later this month, but will first need to see Lee County’s proposed changes.