Defenders of the Gulf

These six heroes do more than their fair share to conserve the natural and cultural assets that make this region paradise.

Jennifer Jones

Director, Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers

Jennifer Jones, Ph.D., would argue that the impact of sustainable living reaches far beyond the changes we see outdoors. “Environmental is, of course, a key element in what most of us are familiar with, but there’s also the social and economic aspect of sustainability,” she explains.

As the director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), Jones is tasked with connecting students to faculty mentors. She also teaches the importance of sustainable living, with a mind toward balancing the needs of urban growth with environmental consciousness. She wants students to focus on how we can sustain growth efficiently. Shaping a generation of leaders who are conscious and equipped to handle issues like climate change and red-tide outbreaks requires educating them outside of ecological studies, she says. That’s partially why every student at FGCU—regardless of their major—is required to take the University Colloquium course, which touches on everything from Fort Myers history to Sanibel’s waterways. Efforts such as these, along with the on-site food forest, 400 protected acres and LEED-certified buildings have earned the college recognition as one of the most sustainable campuses in the country. And Jones is determined to extend that impact into the community.

She recognizes that children are the future of our region. Since joining FGCU’s staff in 2019, Jones has helped develop a year-long program, where Lee County K-12 teachers join the university’s professors in the field to develop environmental curricula for their students. Through Boys and Girls Club of Collier County and Grace Place for Children and Families, Jones also introduced an eight-week program, which includes classes on watershed issues, sea-level rise and other topics for after-school educators, with field-based training for the kids, including boat trips to Keewaydin Island. “It’s helping students understand what they need to do, not just giving them information,” Jones says.

Her goal: to cultivate Southwest Florida as a place where environmental and social responsibility are part of the fabric of the community.
—Tess Raines


Rick Molek 

Owner, Thrifty Garden, Fort Myers

On a cool afternoon in early spring, Rick Molek stands in the middle of his test garden, barefoot. He’s dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt and a pair of soft cotton trousers, the kind that could easily be hitched up if he needed to bend down to inspect a particularly interesting plant or a Monarch butterfly drifting between sweet almond bushes.

Molek owns Thrifty Garden, a shop for all things plant-related in the historic Gardner’s Park district near downtown Fort Myers. Since he opened the space in 2018, Molek has garnered a loyal following of plant enthusiasts. His specialties are wide ranging. He’s a certified Master Gardener, and he offers in-home garden consults, in-shop houseplant clinics and classes on everything from butterfly gardening to composting to Florida-native landscapes.

It’s this last topic that gets his horticulturalist’s heart beating. In the garden behind his shop, Molek grows a mix of natives and Florida-friendly plants—wild lime, salvia, giant milkweed, firebush. Many natives, like the blue mistflower, aren’t commercially viable. They’re short-lived and reseed rapidly. But they’re a beautiful addition to the landscape,  and Molek is quick to convince clients of this, educating them on the fact that many natives, given the opportunity, will thrive. He’s a fan of wild gardening and encourages his clients to leave some space in their yards without deliberate landscaping. Not the whole area, necessarily, but a patch of it. A 5- by 5-foot plot works nicely. “Let it surprise you,” he urges.

In his own garden, Molek has found that if he dithers too long on what to do with a particular stretch, the garden will figure it out for itself—usually in the form of native wildflowers. These natives are key, he says, not just for the landscape but for the entire ecosystem: the birds, bugs and butterflies that rely on indigenous species. “Florida is wild,” Molek says. “Anything we can do to approximate that wildness is better for this state.” —Artis Henderson

Photography of these defenders of the Gulf are courtesy of John Brady—a fellow defender

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