November 1, 2014

Let's step outside.

At a conference at The Registry Resort in Naples some years ago, I heard the publisher of Outside magazine speak. His simple explanation of the magazine's success still stays with me. "The best moments of our lives," he said, "are those we spend outside."

That's especially true for those of us who live along the Gulfshore, this subtropical stretch of Florida that journalist Karl Bickel called "the mangrove coast." One of the last places to take shape on the planet, it rose from the "skeletons of a hundred kinds of dead and gone marine life, Tampa limestone, marl, mulch and peat," he wrote in 1942, to become a fertile, fascinating region. Southwest Florida has changed greatly since Bickel lived here; but it's still a place of beauty and wonder, where technicolor sunsets glow over the Gulf, great sea turtles lumber ashore by moonlight, and right outside a downtown high-rise you can see birds and flowers that Northern naturalists only fantasize about. And despite the explosive growth and building of the last few decades, you can still disappear into vast stretches of the landscape, from secluded island beaches to swamps, inland forests and the dappled-green mystery of what may be this country's last frontier, the Ten Thousand Islands.

Part of the Gulfshore's appeal, I think, is the way we're perched, with all our modern comforts and luxuries, right on the edge of such near-primeval wilderness. And even if we never slog through a cypress slough to spot a ghost orchid or paddle around a mangrove island, most of us spend enormous amounts of time in our glorious outdoors-playing golf or tennis, fishing, walking the beach and much more.

This special issue celebrates the natural wonders and adventures that surround us. And it also salutes, beginning on page XX, some champions of the Gulfshore environment. Most of us are uneasily aware that our presence poses a threat to the land we love, and that as more people move here, the pressures on wildlife, water and other natural systems keep increasing. But our champions are doing something about it-often at great personal cost.

They range from outspoken activists to quiet scientists; but all meet Florida Gulf Coast University professor Bill Hammond's definition of a hero: they've performed "extraordinary deeds in principled ways, often with great focus, grit and lack of attention to personal time and sacrifice."

Hammond, who may be the Gulfshore's best-known environmental advocate, notes that the region has a history of sparking such champions, from President Theodore Roosevelt, whose experiences fishing on Pine Island led him to create three of the nation's first wildlife sanctuaries there in 1908, to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose love for the Everglades inspired the world's largest attempt to restore an ecosystem.

"The loss of biological diversity is the one folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us for," wrote E. O. Wilson, curator of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Our environmental champions-and increasingly, our best officials, business leaders and, yes, developers-understand that for us to destroy the systems that make this region so diverse and alive would be folly indeed.

There's another class of heroes included on our pages-nature photographers, who trudge through muck, sawgrass, blinding rain and blistering heat to show the rest of us a world we otherwise might never glimpse. You can see a stunning selection of their work in "Natural Wonders," beginning on page 124. Included in those images are photographs by Oscar Thompson, a long-time Gulfshore Life contributor whose untimely death several months ago is a loss for us all. A fifth-generation Floridian whose father and grandfather were Southwest Florida guides, Thompson spent his youth trekking the Glades, fishing and getting to know the region's natural habitats and inhabitants, from wild creatures to the Seminole Indians. His photography has won many awards and, more importantly, introduced people all over the world to Southwest Florida's spectacular landscapes. He will be sorely missed; but the love he inspired for the region lives on, in his work and our hearts.