BETWEEN THE LINES
New history explains the barrier islands’ preservation ethos
The Conservation Story
No one knows Sanibel and Captiva like Charles LeBuff and Betty Anholt. Their combined century of institutional memory is formidable. Each has written highly respected histories of the area before, but this latest endeavor— Protecting Sanibel and Captiva
Islands— is the first to examine how the islands’ strong conservation ethos came to be.
“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?” That is the question the authors set out to answer, and they do so not only comprehensively and accurately, but also with style and wit, never forgetting their obligation to entertain readers.
The conservation story is told in roughly chronological order, beginning with the physical forces that shaped the islands into something worth protecting. It then explains that the Calusa Indians thrived here by understanding the geography so well—that is, until the Spanish explorers disturbed this idyllic life.
As control of Florida switched from Spanish to British, back to Spanish, and finally to the still-young United States, development pressures were already building in the peninsula. Land grants were being freely distributed, and Sanibel was targeted for development as early as 1832.
That particular development didn’t happen, but through the next century, the pressure was on to sell pieces of paradise.
Fortuitous visits to Sanibel and Captiva by important conservationists of the day got the ball rolling in favor of preserving paradise. Foremost among these was J.N. “Ding” Darling, whose recognition of the value of Sanibel’s natural environment led to the establishment of a state wildlife refuge in 1939. A national wildlife refuge followed in 1945. His early efforts to preserve the island set the tone for the conservation mindset that would prevail for many years to come.
LeBuff and Anholt tell the story in a compelling way, tracing the continued expansion of the refuge, how that led to the creation of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and ultimately to the incorporation of the City of Sanibel to take control of its own destiny. They also give credit to other local conservation efforts such as the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club, and International Osprey Foundation.
It’s all efficiently laid out in 200-plus p ages, complete with a fascinating array of historical photos.
Protecting Sanibel and Captiva Islands should be required reading for all residents and visitors.
HOW FIRE CHANGED LOCAL HISTORY
While LeBuff and Anholt’s history touches upon the brief reign of Punta Rassa as a premier tarpon fishing destination, a book by local historian Thomas Hall, Epic Fires of Fort Myers, goes into detail about Punta Rassa’s Schultz Hotel fire in 1913 and how it ceded control of tarpon fishing in the area to nearby Boca Grande. This was the second hotel lost to fire by owner George Schultz. The first was the Tarpon House, also on Punta Rassa, which burned down in 1906.
In addition to these two significant fires, Hall lists three others between 1886 and 1913 that influenced the development of Fort Myers. They were the Fort Myers Academy schoolhouse, which Hall writes led to the area leaving Monroe County and forming its own county, to be named for Robert E. Lee; the Bass house fire, which resulted in formation of the area’s first volunteer fire department; and a downtown Fort Myers fire in 1907 that destroyed one building and threatened several others.
Fire was a fact of life at the turn of the century, but these early fires forced the people of Fort Myers to adopt measures that would protect their life and property.