Matanzas Pass Preserve

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Restoration Work Begins Soon

“Lee County will begin significant restoration work on Matanzas Pass Preserve shortly after the New Year,” explained Jesse Lavender, Director of Lee County Parks & Recreation. “This means that unfortunately we must close its main entry at 199 Bay Road, just down from the Beach Elementary School and next to the Estero Island Historic Society (EIHS) Cottages. Matanzas Pass Preserve will not close entirely, however, as you can still access it through the secondary entrance just off the Red Coconut RV Park, and once you are inside, the main trail will remain open.”

A classroom area at the entrance to the Preserve boardwalk.

The renovation of the Preserve will unfortunately last until Summer 2020, sympathized Lavender. “We will complete it as quickly as possible, but there are several big components to the project, especially with the boardwalk, where we will replace almost 900 feet. Because it winds through the Preserve, we cannot just truck in the replacement parts, as that would severely damage the mangroves and plants and imperil the wildlife. This means we must carry all that material in by hand, piece by piece, so anytime you work on a preserve boardwalk, it is time-consuming! In addition to the boardwalk, we will replace the pavilion at the end of the trail and the kayak launch. Fortunately, we can barge in the material for these, so we won’t have to haul all that equipment back there by hand.”

2016 & Hurricane Irma

Lee Country began tentative renovation plans for the Preserve in 2016, Lavender offered. “We intended to do the various projects on a phased approach, in what we thought would be three sectors, but then came Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and that changed everything! After we had time to reassess everything, we decided the better option was to just get everything done all at once. We put the plan together, applied for and received funding through the Tourist Development Council (TDC), then received the final approval from the Board of County Commissioners. Prior to Irma, the estimate for the three original phases was $625,000 but the hurricane caused an additional one million dollars in damages, bringing the new total up to $1,725,000. That is what can happen when a major hurricane blows through your area.”

Following Irma, Lee County hired an engineering consultant to do a structural analysis all through the Preserve. “We learned a significant sector of the boardwalk required replacement, and while much of that damage was due to Irma, some of it is attributable to age,” Lavender explained, before laughing, “in my time, I have so far unfortunately replaced a lot of boardwalks! Many throughout Lee County are roughly 50 years old, so they are simply reaching the end of their lifespans. Other replacement aspects identified by the engineering analysis are that the pilings for the pavilion and kayak launch have significant wear, so due to old age, it is time to replace them as well.”

Lavender admitted, “It is actually tough for Lee County to know the real age of the Preserve’s physical improvements because a non-profit conservancy group of local citizens first purchased the site years ago, then put in many of the original structures before donating it to Lee County, so it is hard to track down the age of some of these things.”

Preserve History

Matanzas Pass Preserve is one of the few large (nearly 60 acres) undeveloped and protected areas left on Fort Myers Beach. It is home to a diversity of native plants and animals, including a maritime oak hammock, transitional wetland and mangrove forest full of raccoon, rabbit, hawks, owls, turtles, snakes, herons, fish and songbirds. It has a 1.25-mile ADA-accessible boardwalk, bayside pavilion with a majestic view of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, and is on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail and Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail. The Preserve is open daily from dawn to dusk with free but limited parking.

Peaceful view of the back bay and bayfront pavilion. Photos by Sarah L

In the mid-1970s, a Stewardship Committee of local residents spearheaded the grassroots effort to acquire the site through donations and a low-interest loan from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), eventually dedicating “The Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve” on January 20, 1979. In 1994, TNC formally turned the parcel over to Lee County, and a year later, the Lee County School District donated an acre for the Preserve entrance as well as the site for the Historic Society and its Davison Cottage. The Lee County TDC contributed $550,000 in 1999 to construct the ADA-accessible boardwalk, with a Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program grant the final $100,000.

EIHS Closure & Xmas Bake Sale

The EIHS announced in mid-November that its two historic cottages at 161 Bay Road, at the main Preserve entrance, will close for the foreseeable future on Sunday, December 1, as Lee County prepares to do the Preserve renovation work.

Due to the closure of its historic cottages, the EIHS will host its annual “Christmas Holiday Party & Bake Sale” at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church on Monday, December 9, beginning at 6:30 p.m. At 7 p.m., the EIHS will showcase its first-ever Christmas dramatic presentation, “The True Spirit of Men,” based on the theatrical production, “All Is Calm! The Christmas Truce of 1914,” with Laurie Neinhaus and Carmen Pacchino. It is a Holiday tale set in the First World War, when Allied and German troops in an extraordinary moment laid down their arms to celebrate Christmas together. As Midnight struck, a sole German soldier stunned the Allied troops by breaking the quiet with “Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night!”

Breathe Deep & Relax

While Irma hastened the need to perform physical repairs at the Preserve, Lavender is happy with how its natural components weathered the storm! “Its natural environment gets hit by major incidents from time to time, and in this case, it rebounded really well. We did not notice a great deal of damage right after Irma, and what did occur there seems to be growing back as it should, after such a large wind and rain event like that. Flooding in the Preserve is not a concern, as it is full of mangroves and buttonwoods and a coastal habitat, so excess water will not affect those. We did lose a few trees but mostly everything either survived or is growing back.”

There are unfortunately two casualties this year due to Preserve construction, Lavender related. “Lee County Parks & Recreation in cooperation with ‘The Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve’ usually hosts nature and education walks there each Wednesday and Thursday morning through April, but we must sadly cancel these for the 2019-20 season.”

While he acknowledged this work will be an inconvenience to the island community, Lavender noted, “Once it is done, it will not only be great for all Matanzas Pass Preserve visitors but will significantly enhance ADA-accessibility. To me, the Preserve is a special place because in the summer, when we are all trying to escape the heat and sun, it is so cool; and in the winter, when traffic seems to line up from one end of the island to the other, it is where you can go to get away from it all, to experience nature and wildlife, to take a deep breath and relax from the real world!”