By Rae Ann Wessel
SCCF Natural Resources Policy Director
As you may have learned from earlier announcements, I will be retiring on May 15. That date will mark the end of 14 years crafting policy for SCCF, our island community, southwest Florida and the greater Everglades region.
It’s been the unexpected highlight of my career to have been invited to serve as SCCFs first Policy Director following two years as a Trustee. In retrospect it came about quite organically. The establishment of the Marine Lab in 2001 engaged SCCF in much-needed science and research monitoring and evaluating the condition of our region's largest natural feature: the Caloosahatchee, estuary and coastal waters.
Together with decades of research on wildlife and land management from the Wildlife & Habitat Management department, SCCF’s science credentials were secured. Unfortunately, that good science was not informing rule-making, legislation or the growth management challenges of this region.
In creating the Natural Resource Policy Director position, the Board of Trustees envisioned a path to both communicate SCCF’s solid scientific findings to a wider audience and provide scientific grounding for natural resources policy decision-making at the local, regional, statewide and federal levels.
Our work plan focused on water and Everglades restoration, beaches and wildlife protection and growth management through rulemaking, legislation at all levels and litigation as needed. SCCF’s regional monitoring and the City of Sanibel's focus on island-based pollution sources made it apparent that the greatest threats to the quality of the barrier island environment and economy were originating beyond and upstream of our island borders.
Over the past 14 years, our advocacy efforts have been wide-ranging and achieved that vision with an added bonus, the dramatic effect that an educated, engaged and vocal community has had in advocating for our environment, economy and quality of life!
Of all the issues on which we have engaged, water quality, water deliveries and restoration of the estuary and greater Everglades have been and will remain the most far-reaching and immediate. Early success included the 2006-08 revision and implementation of a new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule.
Using our monitoring data and conditions in the river, estuary and coastal waters we supported an alternative that reduced harm to Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and our estuary and coastline. Today we are once again in the forefront of providing science and water quality data from our regional network together with lessons learned to demonstrate and support changes to the next lake regulation schedule, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) currently under review.
We created a weekly Caloosahatchee Condition Report to share our monitoring and observations of system conditions with water managers to inform their decision-making. The report, issued in conjunction with the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, City and County resource managers allows us to share unified west coast stakeholders recommendations with those agencies located in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach.
I'm proud that these efforts have raised awareness of the Caloosahatchee, its ecological niche, functions, services and restoration needs. That was no small feat when 25 years ago, after making public comment in support of the Caloosahatchee, I was asked if I represented the Calusa tribe!
While it is impressive that someone recognized the river was named by the Creek Indians for their predecessors, the Calusa — who disappeared from the region in the 1700s — it belied the fact that the river’s significant role in the greater Everglades was unrecognized as was its influence downstream.
Addressing a variety of water, wildlife and habitat issues through science-based policy efforts has successfully represented and engaged our community in rulemaking and legislation. Nonprofits and a community of our size don't traditionally have the power to wield that degree of influence.
Our efforts to protect wetlands and habitat have the added benefit of supporting wildlife, biodiversity, abundance and water quality. The successful preservation and protection of coastal mangrove forests and wetlands throughout our region likely would not have been successful without our efforts. In part because the role of providing a scientifically based backstop for protection of wetlands and wildlife has been significantly abdicated by agencies, causing nonprofits to pick up that role. And it has been successful because of community support and engagement.
I leave feeling good about the progress we have been able to make and the incredible relationships and connections we have forged to good result. The past 14 years in policy have been full of challenges, an engaging, enlightening, exciting, exasperating, experience which I have fully enjoyed and from which I have learned much. I have been so honored to serve this organization with these colleagues for this community. I cannot imagine a better ending to my 42-year career.
I’m confident that this is a good time to hand off the policy baton to the next generation to carry our progress forward. SCCF’s policy work is respected widely and has earned high credibility for our science-based advocacy, our reliability, respectful engagement, relationship building and for working with all sectors.
One thing is certain, we have not seen the last of the challenges to our regional subtropical paradise. Climate change is having and will continue to play a larger role worldwide as well as on our islands. Simultaneously the influx of new residents wanting to share this region made special by all of our conservation efforts, will continue to need active vigilance and advocacy to protect critical resources and our wild neighbors.
Looking ahead, whether it's a toxic algae catastrophe like 2018, harm from massive volumes of harmful discharges, lack of needed dry season freshwater to balance salinity or public health issues from toxic blooms or a pandemic like the COVID-19 crisis, I encourage you to:
Remember my favorite saying, "Never let a good disaster go to waste;" and that during times of great challenges, remember to stay informed, ask questions, read widely but scrutinize information sources and don’t be fooled by opinions masquerading as facts.
My deep appreciation and thanks to all of you who have attended programs, science forums, joined us for an Oxbow & Riverlore Cruise in the past 25 years and participated in taking action as critical issues needed our unified engagement. The SCCF family and this community have made all the difference and I am richer for your friendship and encouragement.