October 31, 2014

Champions of the Environment

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," Margaret Mead said. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." She could have been describing these Southwest Floridians, each of whom-whether personally or professionally, quietly or publicly-has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Southwest Florida's natural systems alive and thriving. Some teach, some politick. Others labor in government offices or work in classrooms. Some are well known; others shun the spotlight. What they have in common is a goal: to champion and preserve the very qualities that drew so many of us to Southwest Florida in the first place.

New York-born BILL HAMMOND arrived here in 1961and has been a moving force in almost every major environmental effort since. As an educator, he's instilled a love of the environment in generations of Southwest Floridians, He's helped breed civic leaders, too, through the Monday Group, a seminar he started when he was teaching at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, where he also devised a curriculum named one of the nation's top 10 by the National Science Foundation. Now a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, Hammond has run nature centers, served on boards, and consulted, lectured and written. Cape Coral's Eco-Park, Six Mile Cypress Slough in Fort Myers, Collier County's CREW wetlands, east Lee County's Manatee Park and Everglades restoration bear his imprint, as do the region's water management, manatee laws and bald eagle protection plans.

A bit of a dandy, with his trademark near-pompadour hair style and tailored dark suits usually bearing a lapel pin inscribed with a message, Hammond knows how to make listeners feel like insiders as he leans forward conspiratorially, speaking with a sly smile. And he's a reporter's dream-accessible, friendly and able to distill complex problems into clear concepts and sound bites. He sees plenty of reason left to fight: "In terms of public ownership of green space, we're still the poorest of the coastal counties on either coast." After 40 years of battle, is he discouraged? "The alternative is hardly worth considering," he declares. Besides, he twinkles, he has his secret weapons: "I like to remind people that sixth-graders will be voters in six years."

He talks with the sweet, swampy twang of those born to the Glades, this charter captain who expertly navigates the green mosaic that is the Ten Thousand Islands. But FRANKLIN ADAMS is more than an amiable old Florida waterman; he's a savvy conservationist who can also pilot through the halls of government. In high school in Miami, he read Marjory Stoneman Douglas' The Everglades: River of Grass, then signed up for her course on the region's natural history at Miami-Dade Junior College in 1958. Eventually the two became chums, and when Douglas helped start Friends of the Everglades in 1971, Adams became its Collier County chairman. "We traveled all over the state in pickup trucks and campers, staying in dumpy hotels and talking to people about the Everglades," he recalls.

He's been a tireless leader in such groups as the National Audubon Society, the Izaak Walton League and the Florida and National Wildlife Federation, which in 2001 honored him with its National Conservation Achievement Award. He now lives on five acres in Golden Gate Estates, planted with Florida natives and inhabited by "whitetail deer, bobcats, coons, possums and black bear," he says. And though he insists he's ready to step back from activism-"I've been going to meetings for 30 years now"- there's little evidence of a slowdown. "I have my days when I get down and depressed, but I'm not ashamed to say I love this country," he says. "And it may sound trite, but I have to think of the next generation."

Most politicos predicted ELLIN GOETZ faced a tough sell last fall, trying to persuade her fellow Collier County residents to tax themselves to buy greenspace. This is, after all, a place known for soaring land prices, fiscal conservatism and wariness about anything that smacks of government-mandated ecology. But Goetz and some other local leaders and activists were convinced that Collier County residents are smart enough not to kill their environmental goose. So the plainspoken, no-nonsense landscape architect agreed to chair Conservation Collier, an initiative that proposed to buy land from willing sellers-as opposed to the condemn-and-coerce tactics some other locales have used-and put it permanently in the public's hands. The fact that she's married to Michael Watkins, whose family has owned the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club for three generations, may have helped give her credibility. Her award-winning, high-profile work probably didn't hurt either; Goetz's credits include Mediterra's Parque Celestial and Naples' Fifth Avenue South revitalization. And she'd also won respect for past volunteer efforts for green causes, especially environmental education. In the end, some 60 percent of voters approved the measure. "By God," Goetz told the Naples Daily News after it was all over, "when the case is made clearly, they're obviously willing to do that."

RAY JUDAH comes across more like an Eagle Scout than a wheeler- dealer, yet for more than a decade, the Lee County commissioner has successfully navigated Southwest Florida's dangerous political waters. Judah even started out with a self-imposed handicap: When he first ran for Lee County commissioner in 1988, he set a $100 limit on campaign contributions. "I didn't want to be beholden to any developers," he says. He'd decided to run for office after serving as Lee County's first environmental planner. At that time, he recalls, the county had "one of the worst plans and probably the least sincere commissioners in terms of comprehensive planning." Things were so bad, he adds, "The state was about to move in and take over the county's growth management planning."

Armed with a degree in zoology, a do-right demeanor and a new pair of glasses ("I wanted to look a little older"), he ran and won on a platform that emphasized environmental preservation and protection.

Since then, he's been the commission's environmental Jiminy Cricket, backing numerous successful green initiatives. Perhaps the best known is the county's Conservation 20/20 program, which has bought and set aside thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land: wild creeks, rare hickory swamps and scrub jay habitat. Not that any of his successes have come easily. "I've been at the short end of a lot of four-to-one votes," he admits. "In a largely very pro-development board, my function has been to be the conscience."

As Charlotte County's Natural Resource Planning Supervisor, BILL BYLE champions the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor, working to protect the region from the impacts of 200 square miles of proposed phosphate strip mining. A former science teacher, Byle became the area's first environmental consultant in 1969. Over the next three decades, he helped draft environmental regulations for the City of Sanibel, local counties and the state. Five years ago, he went to work for Charlotte County. It was a chance to do what he'd been doing with the muscle and teeth of the government behind him. "I'm sure I'm the only bureaucrat in the U.S. paid to slay the dragon," he says with a chuckle. That dragon is the phosphate industry, a hugely complex network that spans the globe and wants to start mining operations that could affect the headwaters of the Peace River.

Those effects, says Byle, could be disastrous. "It sounds like so much conspiracy theory, but the thing is, it's all there," he says. "Sometimes, when you look at things, you see what you don't want to see." And by forcing others to look at hard truths about what could happen if phosphate miners don't follow stricter rules and standards, he's built considerable support and some strong government coalitions for his cause. "People will tell me, 'You know, I used to be happy until you started talking to me,'" he says. "And I see that as a victory."

Sea turtles are a popular cause now, but no one thought about protecting them until CHARLES LEBUFF came along. The feisty Sanibel Islander pioneered many of the techniques and strategies used to conserve turtle populations today. Though he's retired, others who learned at his knee-more often than not, firmly planted in sand behind a nesting female-are carrying on his work.

Born in Massachusetts, LeBuff moved to Naples with his parents as a teen-ager in 1952. He was at a nighttime beach party when a female loggerhead wandered through. Some of the kids wanted to kill her (sea turtles were still hunted then) but LeBuff stood them down, then followed the turtle and watched her dig a nest and lay her eggs. He started staking out and studying the nests on Naples Beach and eventually went to work for what became the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel. That was before there was a causeway; he lived in a cottage near the lighthouse and started a program that researched turtles from Clearwater to Cape Sable. Though his formal education ended with high school, he's a self-taught scientist whose 1990 book, The Loggerhead Turtle in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, is widely respected. He admits he's pessimistic about the region's future and nostalgic for its past. His autobiography, Sanybel Light, is dedicated to his parents, "who had the courage and foresight to sever roots and move to Southwest Florida...before it was raped."

For two mild-mannered, retired Ph.D.s, Gene and Ellie Boyd sure know how to raise a ruckus. The former University of Rochester neuropharmacologists retired to Pine Island in the early 1980s. All was idyllic until a developer announced plans to dredge the creek behind their home, which would make it easier for boats to navigate but harder for wildlife to survive. They walked a petition door to door, gathering more signatures than the Department of Environmental Regulation had ever received for such an effort. But they also gathered some enemies. "Things became quite nasty-tires were slashed, threats made," recalls Gene.

That was the beginning of the Responsible Growth Management Coalition, a grassroots group that's faced down some heavy-hitting opponents. Their biggest battle came in the early '90s, when the site for Florida Gulf Coast University was proposed for the fertile wetlands of southeast Lee County. Envisioning unruly sprawl and terrible pressure on water, roads and wildlife, they opposed permits for the university. The fight was lengthy and loud. There were decisions and appeals, victories and losses. Eventually the Boyds decided to retreat, though not because they were losing, points out FGCU professor Bill Hammond. "They'd already prevailed in a number of cases, and they would have probably eventually prevailed with that, too," but they decided they'd caused enough uproar and received enough abuse. For a few years, they retreated to the Texas hill country, but now they're "back to civilization," says Ellie, living on three wild acres in Buckingham and still passionate about protecting the Gulfshore's quiet beauty. "We hope there's still time for people to learn from the horrors of the east coast," she says.

While sprawl and high rises have marred many Florida islands, Sanibel and Captiva islands still retain much of their natural beauty, thanks to residents who fiercely protect their environment. Some of the credit for that has to go to KRISTIE ANDERS, who as education director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation brings her message to every islander she can, from new residents-who get a free half-day nature tour with her-to real estate agents, who must take her course before joining the Sanibel-Captiva Realtor Association..

Anders landed on Sanibel 20 years ago, armed with a degree in marine science and recreation and parks management, and went to work at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. After building its volunteer program, she moved across the street to the SCCF in 1988. She and her carpenter husband, Red, live two islands up -on North Captiva-in "an old fishing shack," a cabin of pecky cypress. Six days a week, the couple commutes to Sanibel in their 20-foot boat.

"I celebrated the first Earth Day and I was truly convinced we could change the planet," she recalls. Now she realizes that "no one is going to come in and make it all better." So she's determined to do all she can to keep her little corner of the planet alive. "I've decided what's absolutely essential is that small fires burn in all neighborhoods," she says, and she'll keep lighting the fire to protect Southwest Florida's fragile islands in as many hearts as she can.

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