Guest Editorial by Sawyer Smith
Whether it’s drifting in the Boca Grande Pass during tarpon season or snook fishing in the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, kayaking in the maze of mangroves in Ding Darling or relaxing on our miles of white sandy beaches, the beauty and harmony of our coastal and inland waters and the incredible wonders of our natural environment are the very things that make our corner of the world one of the most incredible places to live and visit.
Those of us who are year- round Lee County residents love this coastal com- munity life and recognize the economic impact of the millions of yearly visitors drawn here by our natural resources. Nearly five million visitors last year alone pumped almost three billion dollars into our local economy. It is these same natural resources that must be protected if we are to sustain and improve our economic value, grow our communities and invest in our quality of life.
The challenges and responsibilities of maintaining a healthy Gulf Coast and Caloosahatchee River, while of keen local interest, also extend far beyond our county’s jurisdiction. Lee County’s own Conservation 20/ 20 Program, which buys and conserves sensitive watershed lands, has been successful in meeting its original mission since its inception in 1996. This type of program is essential to judicious water management, but should be reaffirmed by the voters and updated to meet the new challenges of land and water resource protection.
Lake Okeechobee management is not within Lee County’s control, yet the downstream impacts of the devastation of red tide along our coasts are very much our concern. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Water Management Districts will need to work cooperatively with our region to better manage water releases from this lake. Future planning must include recognition of environmental protection throughout all of Florida’s waterways, and balancing the needs and opportunities of economic development with environmental protection. Lee County— perhaps more so than almost any other area in Florida— represents a nexus of oftentimes competing interests in water management. Strong leadership in aligning those diverse and competing interests into a sustainable balance is required to maintain our environment while addressing our quality- of- life concerns. We all benefit from Southwest Florida’s singularly beautiful environment, yet we can easily forget the fragility and interconnectivity of this ecosystem— an ecosystem upon which our very future economic well- being depends.
We need to join together to ensure its protection, while simultaneously engaging in thoughtful and proactive decision making to support businesses, create jobs and grow our economy. After all, in Southwest Florida a healthy environment is inseparable from a healthy economy. We must encourage our leaders in Washington, Tallahassee and throughout our Southwest Florida region to promote common- sense solutions to achieve these mutual goals. As we look around us and at the balance that has already been achieved, we should be confident that by remaining true to our shared principles and commitment to our community, we can and will be successful.
Sawyer Smith Partner, The Wilbur Smith Law Firm