If there’s something that has long attracted residents to Southwest Florida, even over other beachfront locales, it’s that as the area has grown, it has retained its commitment to preservation. That ethos is vital as ever now as more people move to the area and development increases.
Among the most impressive and hopeful news is the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act (FWCA), which recently passed with unanimous bipartisan support. Governor Ron DeSantis approved $300 million in funding this summer to help with Florida’s easement program, through which landowners living in wildlife habitats keep their property but sell the development rights to the state or a nonprofit. The FWCA also increases the state’s budget to acquire more key lands for protection. “The region has a population of about 1.3 million, and it’s expected to rise to 1.5 million over the next five years,” Meredith Budd, regional policy director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, says, adding that development causes habitat loss and fragmentation, which are critical threats to wildlife.
At Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, a $1.3 million initiative is underway to upgrade facilities and improve access without disrupting the pristine wildlife that draws people to its Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. The David Corban-designed project includes a 20-foot-high canopy walkway and new pavilion to enhance visitors’ appreciation of Florida’s largest state park.
Publix got in on the conservation action, too, donating $1.2 million to restore prairie and marshland within Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Doing so means felling invasive willows on nearly 1,300 acres.
Meanwhile, on the beach, the goal is to rebuild. Naples Botanical Garden recently partnered with the City of Naples to replant crucial dunes along beach access points to keep the mini habitats of those shores intact, while also protecting against beach erosion and coastal flooding.
Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, closures also allowed nonprofits to reassess and build. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is close to debuting a $4.5 million renovation and expansion of its Susan and William Dalton Discovery Center. The upgraded facility includes the new Augmented Reality Endangered Species experience focused on Florida’s at-risk animals, as well as an Invasive Species Gallery and a spherical climate change display, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the new John & Carol Walter Discovery Wing.
Get Involved: Naples’ Path Forward
The road from Naples to Immokalee, Golden Gate, Bonita Springs and beyond may be long, but in the future, it may also have a paved hiking-biking trail. The Naples Pathway Coalition is in the early stages of planning for the 70-mile Paradise Coast Trail, with the first 20 miles expected in the next three-to-five years. Help make the trail a reality by joining one of these upcoming events: the post-Thanksgiving Iron Joe Turkey Ride on Nov. 28 at Eagle Lakes Community Park; Paradise Coast Trail Community Celebration, which kicks off the project on Feb. 5 with food trucks, bike clinics and a fun run at Baker Park; and the Naples Bike Brunch on Mar. 13 taking off from Lowdermilk Park. —Andrea Stetson