Conserving the Natural Beauty of Sanibel and Captiva Islands

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
In recent years, the topic of conservation has been a major concern for many across the nation. But in the Sanibel and Captiva Islands of Florida, conservation has been a focal point since its very first settlers arrived in the 19th century. In their new book Protecting Sanibel and Captiva Islands: The Conservation Story, Benny Anholt & Charles LeBuff detail this long history of ecological preservation, and the incredible natural beauty of two of Florida’s barrier islands.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are two popular coastal barrier islands in Southwest Florida’s Lee County. They are truly ecological marvels when one compares them to most of Florida’s other grossly overcrowded and over-built barrier islands. Their special nature lies in the powerful conservation ethic that is present and a sense of place that has been vibrantly viable for well over one hundred years.
 
So how did it happen that the residents of these islands pursued the ethic of conservation when many Floridians, whether on islands or mainland, were damaging or destroying the very essence of what drew tourists and residents to our shores in the first place? Why were these communities willing to halt or slow the development flood that inundated the state? And how did they manage it? The early years of Sanibel and Captiva’s history did not provide a clue to these questions. Development pressures on the islands were as dramatic as in the rest of the state and began much earlier. Was it simply luck? Determination? An awareness of the importance of nature? A sense of community that had a common goal? A desire to save what seemed unique and valuable? All of these things?

An anhinga bird searching for prey.

The word conservation connotes many things, from nearly complete preservation to ethical use. To preserve a resource is to maintain it in an original or an existing state, which cannot always be done or is even desirable. On Sanibel and Captiva Islands, conservation efforts have developed in multiple ways. Conservation safeguards the natural environment and its ecosystems, such as flora and fauna. It also relates to human resources such as architecture, human history and artifacts, museums, libraries and even the internet. Conservation is a balance between preservation and depletion gained through supervision and knowledgeable handling of resources to prevent deterioration, exploitation and wasteful use. It minimizes loss and implies wise usage, allowing some consumption without enabling depletion, including repair and restoration when needed. It implies a prudent and flexible approach to both natural and cultural resources.
 
When an ethical attribute is coupled with conservation, a moral principle develops and is applied by individuals and groups who affirm the need and the public’s desire to apply conservation methodologies. The conservation ethic is a strong and powerful attribute of most residents of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. And many are generous to the extent that conservation programs will be funded and safeguarded into the future.
 
The history of conservation efforts on Sanibel and Captiva Islands involves a unique, long-established mindset of a parade of conservationists. These are persons, some unknown, others renowned, who were fortunate enough to visit or—like us—live permanently on Sanibel and Captiva Islands for an extended period of time. We both knew and interacted with many of those personalities and followed in their footsteps to serve the good work they had started. Those early conservationists contributed their time and treasure to ensure that the islands that they too once loved were properly nurtured into the future. For the most part, that concept has worked, proving their investments were wise and that a strong sense of environmental stewardship is alive and well on these islands. Many of these individuals provided the impetus for the conservation organizations on the islands, and these extend their reach and influence beyond our physical shoreline.

An American crocodile.

An important result of this conservationist outlook is that because islanders demonstrated how much they cared about their environment and other qualities of life such as the rate of growth and building densities, many mainlanders grew to consider residents of Sanibel and Captiva to be wealthy elitists. After all, the conservation ethic ruled here. This is a drastic change from the economic hierarchy that existed prior to 1963 in this region. If you lived permanently on Sanibel or Captiva before 1963, the residents of mainland Lee County considered you to be a secondclass citizen because of the differences in the living standards between the barrier islands and the county’s lone city at the time, Fort Myers. This attitude would diminish after Sanibel’s connection to Punta Rassa by the first bridge in 1963. A decade later, privately owned subdivisions and other developed residential and multifamily lands resulted in Sanibel and Captiva Islands being considered upscale bedroom and resort communities. The tables had turned.
 
Long before such social attitudes were manifested, these islands were remote, hostile and populated by only the hardiest elements of humanity. Following the first two episodes of European contact with the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands, the region’s change was initially inconsequential. Three centuries would pass before humans would materially affect and change the region. We will discuss each era in a timeline format in the pages ahead.
 
There have been several historically oriented books written about Sanibel and Captiva Islands, among them works we have both contributed to and written. Ours and the works of others are listed in our bibliography section for your further reading. This is the first to examine and consolidate the historic struggles of individuals and groups united in a common cause to form a longstanding conservation ethic that has thrived and continues to expand into the twenty-first century.
 
To write this book, we have relied on over one hundred years of combined experiences. With our families, we have lived and worked as permanent year-round residents on Sanibel Island, and for much of that time, we shared common events. Independently, we are students of the biology, natural ecosystems, archaeology and human history of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. We each have contributed our time and talents to the conservation ethic of these islands. Please enjoy our historical compilation and do your part to hold the course and help nurture the conservation ethic you have discovered here.
 
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