Local Environmental Pioneers
“Not knowing your history, is like walking into the middle of the movie.”
-Florida conservationist Nathaniel Reed
Wednesday April 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. The holiday was intended to commemorate the public’s increasing awareness of our planet’s environmental health. In today’s polarized political climate, it is easy to be despondent about the state of our planet, and forget that collaboration on environmental policy was once possible. Looking back over the past five decades, however, there have been several moments when conservationists, business owners and politicians in Lee County fought, compromised and arrived at environmental successes from which we still benefit.
Well before the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California horrified the nation, a nascent movement to protect waterways in Lee County had begun. Fort Myers science educator Bill Hammond created the “Monday Group” to provide field research experiences to high school students. Hammond coached the teens to apply their research to environmental policy. As a result of a series of presentations to the Lee County Commissioners, the Monday Group got a referendum placed on the election ballot to protect Six Mile Cypress Slough. In 1976, the majority of the county’s voters elected to make the slough a preserve. The teenagers’ passion and professionalism made a positive difference. As the Lee County’s website states: “Because of high school students who loved a piece of natural Florida and fought to save it,” Six Mile Cypress Slough is a public oasis of environmental protection and recreation today.
In the early 1960’s, out-of-state developer Robert Troutman hoped to carve a west-coast version of Fort Lauderdale out of Estero Bay. To fend off his plan, a coalition of citizens formed the Lee County Conservation Association. An excruciating six-year battle against well-heeled attorneys ensued. Under the leadership of Bill and Pat Mellor, the LCCA’s heroic efforts halted the “Troutman Plan” and set a precedent for protecting environmentally sensitive aquatic habitats. By 1983, Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve extended from Fort Myers to Bonita Springs, protecting mangroves and estuarine habitats from the threat of over-development. Today, 41 aquatic preserves thrive throughout the state. Like Six Mile Cypress Slough, Estero Bay is a wildlife sanctuary and recreational gem.
The acquisition and protection of the coastal and barrier islands became a priority for Lee County Commissioners in the late 1970’s. Mike Roeder, an urban planner by training, ran on a conservation platform in 1980 and won a seat on the Commission by a clear majority. The Barrier Island Coalition, headed by Dinesh Sharma, appeared frequently before the Commissioners. Sharma educated the public about the hazards of over-development of coastal islands. County Commissioner Frank Mann, who was serving in the Florida State Legislature at the time, advocated for state acquisition of properties using funds from Save Our Coast. This innovative program had been the brainchild of former governor Bob Graham when he served as a state senator. By 1983, the islands that comprise Lovers Key State Park made it to the top of the list of Save Our Coast. Developer Floyd Luckey took the lead in selling his portion of Black and Lovers Key islands. He understood that the land where he planned to build a resort was better suited for a public park. The combined efforts of these individuals culminated in the creation of Lovers Key State Park. Today, it is the second most visited in the state park system, boasting miles of world-class beaches, hiking and biking trails and exceptional habitat and wildlife.
In the early years of the nation’s environmental awakening, citizens of Lee County achieved remarkable successes in wetlands, estuarine and coastal protection. These pioneers practiced ‘politics as the art of the possible’ and sought pragmatic solutions through compromise and collaboration. They believed that economic growth and environmental protection are mutually beneficial, not antagonistic. 50 years after the first Earth Day, we can honor their legacy by embracing an ethos of stewardship. Their endeavors can inspire us to cherish and protect our region’s waterways and natural habitats.
by Louise F. Kowitch
Louise F. Kowitch is the Education Coordinator for Friends of Lovers Key. She is researching an environmental history of Lee County for the new Welcome and Discovery Center, scheduled to open in January 2021 at Lovers Key State Park.