The Friends of the Matanzas Pass Preserve held their annual meeting at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library on Tuesday, February 14, as expected, and they received an update on Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 Program, as expected, but it came from an unexpected source.
Jason Boeckman, Coordinator for the Conservation 20/20 program, was a last-minute substitute for Cathy Olsen, the acting director of Lee County Parks & Recreation and Conservation 20/20, who was under the weather. He explained that “Lee County Parks & Recreation is one big happy family, as we include beaches, pools, sports complexes like Hammond Stadium and Jet Blue Park, boat ramps, fishing docks, land and water trails, and Conservation 20/20 preserves.”
For those unfamiliar with Conservation 20/20, Jason described it as “Lee County’s current environmentally-sensitive land acquisition program, meaning we only purchase properties from willing sellers at agreed-upon land appraisal amounts. Properties that Lee County will consider includes natural areas, estuaries, ecosystem restorations, wildlife preservation, and nature-based recreation among other top priorities.”
Conservation 20/20 began in the mid-1990s as a grass-root movement in response to the vast amount of land being developed for residential and commercial use. The concern was that Lee County would become too overdeveloped, like the Miami-to-Fort Lauderdale corridor that preserved little open space. The citizen’s movement placed a referendum on the ballot that easily passed, setting the stage for Conservation 20/20 – “as in 20/20 vision,” explained Jason, “the clear vision for future growth.”
In November 2016, Lee County voters reapproved the Conservation 20/20 program with 84% of the vote. “There were roughly one hundred parks and recreation or conservation ballot measures across the county in that election,” Jason offers, “and Conservation 20/20 tied with communities in Georgia and California for the largest margins of victory anywhere in the nation! That speaks volumes to the importance our residents place on their environment.”
Conservation 20/20 has 45 individual preserves, composed of 124 separate acquisitions, totaling 24,931 acres – “we hope to be able to announce we reached 25,000 soon,” Jason explains. “There are a few potential new acquisitions on the horizon, one in Cape Coral and another in the Olga community. Conservation 20/20 lands range from less than 1 acre to add to Cayo Costa State Park, to as large as 5,620 acres. Many parcels are crucial to improving ground water recharging and clean drinking water. Today we preserved roughly 20% of the county in a conservation mode; as we like to say, no matter where you are in Lee County, there is a Conservation 20/20 preserve near you!”
Some of the most noteworthy sites added by Conservation 20/20 include the Six Mile Cypress Preserve, “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Corkscrew Region Ecosystem Watershed, Babcock Ranch Preserve, and, as an audience member reminded him, Matanzas Pass Preserve! Conservation 20/20 programs include land management, hydrological restoration for natural water flows, the protection of endangered species, invasive plant removal, and prescribed and controlled burns, with Jason calling the latter “the best and least expensive way to prevent wildfires, recycle the nutrients in the soil, and remove invasive species.” Recreational components include hiking, kayaking, biking, trails, and even equestrian activities.
Animal environment preservation parcels include regions for wading birds, the American alligator, white ibis, river otters that holds their breath for up to four minutes, and the gopher tortoise. “My parents recently visited from Ohio, so I took them to a Conservation 20/20 location on Pine Island,” Jason relates. “It was an area where we recently removed invasive plants, and a bald eagle flew right at us, in a moment you cannot plan, and I assured my parents I did not pay the wildlife to do that just for them!”
Jason stated that “Conservation 20/20 offers free guided nature walks throughout the year to introduce you to the preserves, with our wonderful volunteers leading the way, many of whom are Master Gardener Program graduates. If you or your group would like to volunteer, we offer numerous programs and activities, and I will work with you to best fit your schedule and interest.”
For Conservation 20/20 information see www.conservation2020.org or call 239-533-8833; for Parks & Recreation call 239-533-7400