“Why do we do this?” asked Terry Cain rhetorically at the beginning of her presentation to review the new 10-year management plan for the Matanzas Pass Preserve to roughly 20 people at the Red Coconut RV Park Community Room on Tuesday afternoon, July 18. “To learn where we have been, where we are now and where we want to go in the future, always with a heavy dose of history.” Terry has been the Land Stewardship Coordinator for Lee County Parks & Recreation for 13 years, with involvement with the Matanzas Pass Preserve since the mid-1970s.
Terry explained that this will be the third plan since Lee County took control of the site from the Nature Conservancy in 1995, with a new one every ten years. “The 1st was done in 1996, by a young intern on a typewriter with carbon paper, then we did the second and now this one on computer, so it is fascinating to compare that original document to what we produce today.”
In reviewing changes to the preserve over the past decade, Terry said that it produced several positives, such as the creation of a new plant list, assembling aerial photographs, designing a site map and management plan, incorporating resources management to control and eliminate exotic plants and providing for a kayak launch in the low area. “The primary change,” Terry explains, “came from Mother Nature herself, as more salt water and fresh water influenced the plant community to alter it. This little preserve had a coastal plain on it for the last two plans, but that disappeared because it is drier, leading to a habitat that now has oak trees and skunk cabbage. If you walk it enough and pay close attention, you notice it does change over time, finding a new discovery around every corner!”
Geologic Age of the Preserve’s Sand
One of the most interesting aspects of creating the new plan was determining the geologic age of the preserve’s sand! “We sent samples to the University of Georgia” Terry explained, “and they determined it is 1,430 years old, plus or minus 50 years, dating back to the year 570 that coincides with the occupation of the Mound House site, so that is a really neat thing that shows how all that comes together!”
Terry added, “We couldn’t do this without our Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve group, who help us ensure that residents and visitors enjoy this tropical barrier island habitat with mangrove forest, transitional wetlands, maritime oak hammock, with a little beach and abundant wildlife, while providing people a restful environment full of tranquility and animals. The Friends developed the first trail, conduct public programs, and work to eliminate exotics.”
The Friends group originated to save the Preserve in the 1970s, when it looked like a developer would purchase the property, so locals approached John Dunning, a successful nature photographer for National Geographic Magazine. He bought it, placed half with The Nature Conservancy and retained the other half until residents could repay him, then he turned the rest over to the Conservancy. “There are still people who live on Estero Island today who have been active with the Friends since then,” marveled Terry! “No one bought the initial parcel with tax dollars, but through a true grass roots effort, and it was a big deal to get that much money together then, as Fort Myers Beach was not a wealthy area but made up of fishermen and carpenters.”
The new 10-year proposal takes into consideration the rapid population growth over the past decade. “We will replace some trails with boardwalks,” she says, “and that is the big news, with the goal to connect the current north loop completely by boardwalks to make it ADA-accessible and safe for parents with small children. The boardwalk will be the same elevation as the one there now, and not just for the benefit of people but the preserve, because tree roots close to the ground become stressed from people walking on them. We will host nature programs, maintain a plant list for natives and invasives, and critically, change its zoning to a natural designation, as its present level can still allow development.”
Preparing the Preserve for Future Human Activity
Another essential element to the plan is to prepare the preserve for future human activity. “How many people can we fit in the preserve at one time,” wondered Terry, “as it is little, at just 60 acres, and it is a preserve, not a park, and that is a big distinction. I had a person tell me once that a park is a park, but preserves are for eating! MPP had as many as 3,480 visitors last March, and that was still 1,300 in June, and that is pretty surprising, especially when you consider we do not allow bicycles or dogs. It’s good that the parking lot is so small, at just 12 cars, so that helps regulate how many people can be there at any time, with most visitors walking there or coming by trolley. The primary reason for MPP is to maintain the habitat for the critters, then we humans get to share and enjoy it with them.”
The Lee Board of County Commissioners has the final determination, when they will review and possibly approve the concept when they meet in August. With that yet to happen, Terry is already working hard on its next chapter. “We are initiating efforts right now to help to save the endangered Monarch butterfly population, and we hope the data we assemble now and over the next decade will be in the 2027 ten-year plan.” When asked by an audience member if she will author that draft as well, Terry, who has been serving Fort Myers Beach since the mid-1970s, said, “I can absolutely tell you – NO!
“I hope you got some new knowledge, and learned or remembered some old knowledge,” concluded Terry. “We maintain the Matanzas Pass Preserve for you, to enjoy the most beautiful place on Fort Myers Beach!”