By Leif Johnson | Conservancy Biologist
In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio spontaneously caught fire, sparks from a passing train igniting its oil-slicked surface with flames five stories high. Though this wasn’t the first or the worst fire in the river’s history; Cleveland had been a hub for industrial plants since the Civil War and the river was unabashedly known to be one of the most polluted in the country, that moment would ultimately gain national attention and go on to light a different kind of fire altogether.
Growing outrage over environmental destruction had been building across the country for decades. From numerous oil spills and smog-filled cities, to the dust bowl that sent walls of soil thousands of feet high from the great plains to the steps of the capitol in D.C., the Cuyahoga fire was simply one more crisis added to a growing list that would push the countries tolerance to a breaking point. When tensions finally snapped the frustration would blossom into an international movement that handed a megaphone to environmentalism like never before.
That movement would become Earth Day.
Since its first day, when it saw 10% of the country’s population come out in demonstration, the event has spread far and wide to nearly 200 countries and over a billion people making it the “largest secular civic event” in the world.
Though internationally celebrated, Earth Day rides on the backs of local movements, local groups, and individuals all contributing singular acts of kindness and respect towards the planet. In Southwest Florida, few better examples of the Earth Day spirit can be found than in the makings of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
They called it “The Road to Nowhere,” the latest development scheme that sought to extend Kelly Road (now Bayshore Dr.) through one of the areas most treasured and pristine estuaries, Rookery Bay. For many locals though, this was a step too far. In 1964, concerned citizens in Collier County banded together to oppose this new crest in a wave of plans that sought to change the face of the region. One petition and thousands of signatures later, they would succeed in saving the bay and much more.
Brought together by a collective desire to protect the areas natural beauty and a belief that more pavement doesn’t always equal progress, the success of this movement made it clear that nature needed a voice and it’s into that role the Conservancy was born.
Each section of coastline in Florida has its own nickname. Around Cape Canaveral, it’s the “Space Coast; and along the northeast, it’s the “First Coast”; but here in Southwest Florida, we’re known as the “Paradise Coast” and when a place is labeled as such, it has a way of drawing attention. Attention that can turn into envy, which soon rolls into action, and we can see this as the region’s population continues to be one of the fastest-growing in the country.
The question then becomes, in providing a piece of paradise to everyone that seeks it, can we keep those elements which named it paradise in the first place? I suppose the word paradise itself can mean different things to different people. As with anything, it’s always a matter of perspective.
In the 1880s, when Naples was first established, the perspective was of wealthy Northerners who came to winter here. For them, the name paradise was evoked by the abundant wildlife and untamed wilderness, but it wouldn’t take long for those qualities and characteristics to be diminished.
“The vast number of birds and geese, ducks, curlews, fish crows and others, which would line the beach in the morning for miles so numerous that the sands could hardly be seen are gone and the flocks of curlews which flew steadily over the town for an hour or more every evening are no more.”
(Lucien Beckner, who spent the winter of 1889–1890 in Naples and wrote a letter to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas after seeing Naples Bay again in 1955 (Tebeau, 1966).)
At the Conservancy, our perspective is not wholesale preservation. We know this region will grow, we just want it to do so in a way that takes all its stakeholders into account, and all too often the wildlife, natural areas, and many ways they enhance our lives are left out of the growth equation. So, we’ve made it our mission to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, and wildlife for future generations to come.
In south Florida, it’s hard to do anything without affecting water quality, so we must be extra cautious about the impact every move can have on our drinking water, and coastline. The economy and life here are inseparably linked to water quality and we have continually sought to highlight that through strategic projects and policies.
Looking at a map of the region you can see that much of it is fortunately still in conservation. Those wins were hard-fought though, and on many of them you can find the mark of the Conservancy. From Rookery Bay and the Fakahatchee Strand, to Picayune State Forest, Delnor-Wiggins, Ten Thousand Islands, and Big Cypress National Preserve, our once small organization has had a massive impact on the region and continues to work diligently to protect its’ future. At the moment, much of that future is playing out in Eastern Collier County, where everyone’s help is needed in guiding these pivotal decisions.
Many of those same species that first drew people to the area, would wind up being shoved to the edge of extinction, something that Earth Day would help to remedy. One of the greatest landmark results of the environmental movement would come in 1973 in the form of the Endangered Species Act. At the Conservancy, we have actively supported this landmark piece of legislation since its inception. From Florida panthers, sea turtles, mangroves, gopher tortoises, and the invasive species that threaten them all, we’ve spent decades working to give voice to those that lack one, and rehabilitate the injured.
Each of the above categories is linked together, and when combined, they create the future of the region. The speed at which we are capable of changing the face of this planet is dizzying, but once it’s been developed, once the last members of a species have been evicted, we cannot get them back.
We know it’s exhausting enough just to get yourself out of bed some days, let alone pay attention to what’s changing in the community. It’s a full-time job to stay on top of this, so we work hard to be on top of it for you, educating, advocating, and researching. At the Conservancy, we are committed to helping citizens stay informed; assisting our government and business leaders with science-based research, encouraging them to make growth decisions that keep the health, well-being, and sustainability of our region in mind.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In that time, the national pendulum has continued to swing back and forth, from movements to preserve and protect natural resources to those seeking to develop and utilize. If we’ve learned anything in this time, it’s that the acts that bring Earth Day to life, both large and small, will always need to be acted on, because the forces that made them necessary, will always be at play. Five decades ago, the word “environmentalism” was barely a blip on the radar. Now, it occupies a prime spot in the public conscience, but it’s up to each generation to pick up the torch and pass these ethics on.
The tug-of-war between conservation and development, short- and long-term gains, selfishness and selflessness exists within all of us. Though it may seem inconsequential, the decisions we make every day play into that rolling outcome we call the future. Environmentalism received a tremendous boost from Earth Day 50 years ago, and I can only imagine where it will be in another 50, but one thing’s for sure, it won’t get there on its own.
Join us at the Conservancy in the fight to protect paradise and continue carrying the torch.