ESRI Conservation Program: GIS Stories from the field

The Conservancy Inc.


By Dr. Jim Gore, The Conservancy Inc.

To conserve the biodiversity, environmental quality, and natural resources of Southwest Florida's native ecosystems for present and future generations.

We live in the only intact subtropical ecosystem in the continental United States. This unique treasure is in our hands to conserve and protect as we enter the next century. In the face of today's urgent environmental challenges, we would be wise to remember and appreciate conservation lessons of the past before deciding on the best road for the future. To paraphrase a popular saying, "If we do not learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them." As we continue to conserve our natural areas, we must realize that all of today's decisions regarding these lands will determine the eventual sustainability of our rare, environmental heritage -- in other words, our "one and only."

(Full size Collier County map: 221kb)
Next Century Directions Can We Make the Connection?

There are two alternative roads leading to the next century. One leads to a steady decline in even our most protected areas, the other to sustained and functioning native ecosystems. Clearly, one of the most important decisions facing us in 1994 is whether to preserve isolated pieces of sensitive land or to conserve native ecosystems connected by corridors. The consequences of today's choice will be either a mosaic of isolated "green" patches or a system of natural corridors connecting fragile inland wetlands and watersheds to coastal estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico.

As the human population increases in Collier County over the next decade, we would be wise to consider the importance of interconnected natural ecosystems and their essential role in our everyday lives. These natural systems filter pollutants from the air, water and soil. They aid in cooling streams and soils through shading while protecting and enhancing the water quality of rivers and lakes. And wetlands recharge groundwater aquifers and buffer developed areas from floodwaters, saving lives and millions of dollars.

In the past, the natural flow ways of water have been altered as wetlands were filled and drained to make way for people and agriculture. Today, we realize that large drainage canals not only release the freshwater that we need into the Gulf, but, along with roads, have isolated natural ecosystems from one another. The Golden Gate Canal, for example, moves enough freshwater into Naples Bay on an average summer day to supply the water needs of Collier County for 10 days during the height of the winter season. Not only is that water lost to us and to inland wetlands, but it also changes the salinity of Naples Bay, making it much less productive. In addition, the canal has changed the direction of natural water flow, isolating wetland ecosystems in the process.

Collier County's isolated refuges and reserves will slowly deteriorate unless they are connected. In many cases the natural systems that once fed and balanced these pristine reserves either no longer exist or are too developed to be restored. In other cases, watersheds that help maintain our coastal estuaries, swamps and forests can still be recovered, but complex political issues must be resolved before restoration can begin.

According to Dr. Jim Gore, Director of The Conservancy's Environmental Protection Division, "Our last chance to protect our natural heritage is to conserve large, contiguous areas that already connect, or, after restoration, could reconnect the region's native ecosystems." The area known as Belle Meade is a particularly appropriate example. This area of wetlands and intermingled pine flatwood uplands is the headwaters of the watershed which feeds into Rookery Bay. This area of high productivity stores flood waters and filters the chemical contaminants in water. Thus, the freshwater flows which reach the estuary are of high quality and are balanced to maintain salinity concentrations necessary to sustain the diversity of life and productivity of the Rookery Bay estuary. Without connections to the upper watershed, Rookery Bay becomes an isolated ecosystem fragment subject to the pollutants and altered flows of a developed watershed.

Our laws governing development and the environment can either focus on scattered regulations for individual, isolated parcels or can form a comprehensive approach for the protection, maintenance and restoration of reserves and connecting corridors.

Future scenarios are being debated now. Will this region be a mosaic of land fragments in slow decline or will future maps show natural corridors connecting healthy native ecosystems that are fully functional?

Connected natural ecosystems in the twenty-first century offer innumerable benefits to Florida's diverse wildlife. Many of our endangered and threatened species, such as black bears, panthers and bobcats, require large home ranges in order to survive, mate and raise their young. "Without a doubt, the most critical issue for the wildlife of Southwest Florida is the relentless, devastating loss of habitat," says Dyanne Singler, Manager of The Conservancy's Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. "Residential and commercial developments obviously encroach upon native wildlife habitat. Access roads through these developed areas also take an enormous toll. The crossroads issue for wildlife is very literal. Their home ranges are crisscrossed with highways, state roads and canals which invite human interaction and interference," adds Singler.

Florida's wildlife species need room to roam. The greatest value of connected ecosystems is in maintaining the vitality and diversity of native plant and animal populations. Conserved natural corridors can allow wildlife the freedom to move between feeding and shelter areas of their ranges without as much danger of being killed on roadways or lost in towns and cities. Natural areas and entire ecosystems must be protected, maintained and restored through strong public and private partnerships if the region's native plants and animals are to survive in the next century. In Singler's opinion, "Plants and animals are adapted to specific ecosystems-only we can guarantee the continued viability of these lands."

"Many experts agree that we have the ability to make development sustainable, to ensure that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," says Jim Gore. "But local efforts toward that goal, such as the Outstanding Florida Water designation for Wiggins Pass and listing Belle Meade in the CARL program, require community understanding, involvement and grass roots support. This is one of our most important challenges," adds Gore.

Lands must be acquired for conservation within the next 5 years-after that time, most land still available will be used for other purposes. Even now, The Conservancy is increasing its capability to maintain and restore the ecological viability of already acquired lands. Good stewardship will become increasingly important.

Will these lands be allowed to degrade due to isolation from the systems that feed them and from the invasion of exotic species? Or will our reserves flourish from reconnection to the web of adjoining systems which sustains them?

The Conservancy will expand its leadership in the area of stewardship. We will strive to be an excellent community resource in this area, offering our services to other groups to help design and implement management plans for natural areas.

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Text and graphics: The Conservancy Inc.
January 2, 1997, Dr. Jim Gore, The Conservancy Inc., 1450 Merrihue Drive Naples, FL 33942, Phone: (941) 262-0304

Web layout & design: ESRI Conservation Program, January 2, 1996

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