Lover’s Key First Love Returns
It’s déjà vu all over again for Bob Steiger!
“In July 1994, I accepted the position to manage both the fledgling Lovers Key State Park as well as the Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park in North Naples. This land was mostly undeveloped then, and I was part of the team that negotiated with Lee County to merge this site with their Carl E. Johnson County Park. Since the two were contiguous it made sense ecologically to manage them as one. When we first authored the development and operation plans, it was like – ‘Whoa!’ But I put in everything I thought necessary to make them function together as one cohesive unit.”
Bob explained, “I was still here to implement the original Lovers Key plan, to make sure it got off to a good start, but overseeing everything here while managing the already-established Delnor-Wiggins Pass meant I could not be in two places at once, especially in season when driving between the two was a nightmare! The State placed me at Delnor-Wiggins Pass, though I was part of the process to select my replacement.”
Lee County foresaw Lovers Key as a tourist destination, Bob explains. “Everybody saw what was coming – Collier County lacked beach access, and the State knew it needed to keep open this beach access or risk becoming another Naples. Delnor-Wiggins Pass was already close to capacity even back then, with the region still growing, so the hope was Lovers Key would relieve that pressure, but Southwest Florida just kept growing.”
I Wanted to Scream “No!”
Water is where everyone wants to go, and Bob understands. “I grew up in the Tampa Bay area so you don’t need to explain this to me – when we were kids it was ‘let’s go to the beach – yeah; let’s go!’ I understand how everyone loves it. I grew up in Pinellas County, and watched it go from semi-rural with farms and citrus fields to the most densely-populated in the state. We would drive to the beach and there were no lots, so we parked right on the sand under a big Australian pine for shade, but as the community developed, all that went away. When I moved to here in 1994, you could already see the same thing going on and I wanted to scream ‘No!’”
Bob feels we as a society have yet to learn to live in harmony with nature. “How to balance profit with preservation, but there are things people can employ to be less intrusive. All things in nature work, and we need to find our way to work with rather than against nature. Old Mother Earth will be anything she wants to be, no matter how much money engineers throw at her, because land and water are dynamic.”
Steiger is single with two grown children, Bob and Kara. “Early in my career, we moved a lot until they begged me to remain in one spot long enough so they could graduate school without losing any more friends, and as a parent you do that for your children. Now that they are adults, I have that freedom again.” Toward that end, he will retire in 18 months: “I wish sometimes I could go past that date, but that is not how our system works. My job still excites me every day, though, and I did not want to just phone in my final year, so when this job opened, I happily applied as I am wired to pursue the next challenge!”
Bob’s Significant Other lives in North Carolina, and his ultimate retirement destination is to join her. “That will be my escape to the mountains; it amazes me how people who grew up on the beach always want to move to the mountains, and how those folks always dream about moving one day to the beach.”
Wow! What a Neat Place!
In the meantime, “I cannot wait to explore Fort Myers Beach! I am so glad to live here, and fortunately I have known some of my coworkers for years; assistant manager Matt Kruse and I are friends for about 17 years, and administrative assistant Katherine Bowron and I go back at least a dozen. My 6-year-old granddaughter recently visited from Alabama and saw Lovers Key for the first time. She just said ‘Wow! What a neat place – I want to stay and grow up here!’”
Lovers Key is the second most-visited State Park in Florida, with its 1.2-million visitors second to only Honeymoon Island in Dunedin. “It is a delicate balance,” Bob says, “as that much visitation can literally love a park to death.”
Lovers Key, Black Island, and Inner and Long Keys compose the 712 acres that make up the park. Activities include shelters, swimming, picnicking, boating, sunbathing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, bicycling and wildlife viewing for manatees, dolphins, and over 40 bird species. For years, Lovers Key was only accessible by boat, with lovers traveling there to enjoy its remote and solitary beach. Black Island got its name from Black Augustus, a captured pirate who later escaped and made his home there.
In the 1960s and 1970s, development threatened the four barrier islands, so the State acquired the lands in 1983 and merged them in 1996 with the adjacent Carl E. Johnson County Park. Lovers Key is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to sundown, with $8 per car admission for 2 to 8 people, $4 for single occupant vehicles or motorcycles, and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. It is at 8700 Estero Boulevard; for more information call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org.
Inside / Outside
“Last week marked my return to Lovers Key,” Bob explains. “It is so exciting and new, yet I bring a lifetime of service and knowledge to the job. It’s been great to return here and visit over the years, and watch it grow and prosper, from sort-of an insider and outsider perspective, and there are more improvements yet to come.”
He looks forward to working with The Friends of Lovers Key to achieve their dream of constructing a nature education center that explains the importance of the park and environment, “for people who use, visit and protect it. I cannot think of a better way than a first-class visitor center to educate the public; remember most visitors and even residents are not Floridians, so it is crucial they know its history and one of our missions is education – what is here and why and how it works. I totally support their goal.”
Bob emphasizes that he “wants Lovers Key to be the best park it can be, for both visitors and the local community, because parks are terrific places to escape the stress of life. This is a great way to conclude my career; I am ready and eager to see where we can take Lovers Key, and all that we can accomplish together.”
Caption: Bob Steiger, new Lovers Key State Park manager.