After an outpouring of stakeholder concern about the way the state runs Cayo Costa State Park, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it’s pausing to gather more information before putting the island park’s 10-year plan to a vote.
The off-delayed vote was to have happened at a June 11 meeting, but last Friday, the agency pulled the item from the meeting’s schedule with no public explanation.
After repeated calls and emails from The News-Press asking why, a spokeswoman emailed Wednesday afternoon: “Since the initial drafts of the park’s Unit Management Plan were released for review, the department has received several comments from stakeholders. The department is taking additional time to evaluate those comments and ensure concerns are appropriately addressed,” DEP spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta wrote. “We look forward to the continued input from stakeholders as we evaluate additional opportunities to enhance protection of resources and stewardship by visitors.” Meanwhile, said Kuchta, people can email comments to FLStateParkPlanning@FloridaDEP.gov.
The plan, which will govern how the treasured park operates, has become a hot issue. More than 2,200 people have signed a petition organized by the advocacy group, Save Cayo Costa, asking the state to stop letting boatloads of tourists land twice daily at a dock on the island’s bay side, known as “The Narrows,” a thin strip of land at the island’s southern end.
Considered one of Lee County’s natural gems, only about 40 of the park’s 3,000 acres are in private hands. The rest is public park. What’s become controversial is use of one of the park’s two public docks by Captiva Cruises ferry boats carrying thousands of tourists each month.
A Cayo Costa Island homeowner weighs in on tourism impact on parts of the island
A Cayo Costa homeowner weighs in on tourism impact on parts of the island
Andrew West, Fort Myers News-Press
Captiva Cruises boats harming The Narrows, Cayo Costa advocates say
The tourist trips are harming one of the park’s most ecologically vulnerable areas, called The Narrows, both in and out of the water, advocates say. The twin-engine, 45-foot boats damage seagrass in the island’s shallow back bay, while prop-dredging the sand, says Cape Coral boater Randy Johnson.
Once ashore, the visitors trample a narrow path across the island to the Gulf side, creating a sandy swale through which water could rush in a storm, advocates say. The beach they visit is bordered by fragile dunes and contains shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitat.
The boats don’t have to land at The Narrows. At the island’s northern end is a larger, deepwater dock with a ranger station, toilets and a tram to the beach. That’s the one the tour boats should use, advocates say, leaving the landing at The Narrows for private boaters, for whom docking space on the island is at crisis-level scarcity, Johnson says.
Also galling to some stakeholders: Management plans are supposed to be reviewed and updated every decade or so. The one under which the park is currently running originated in 2005, then sunsetted in 2015. The new one was supposed to be in place by 2017, says Cayo Costa property owner Margi Nanney, so seeing it stall once more has her and other park advocates seeing red.
“This troubling delay means further negative impacts will continue indefinitely at The Narrows. The DEP moves like a herd of turtles,” Nanney wrote in an email. “There is no end in sight as to how long they will kick the can down the road. This plan is six years overdue. They agreed there were damages and vowed to close the south dock to commercial use …
“DEP must immediately halt the commercial operations at the narrows, beef up the north end infrastructure for the growing numbers of commercial and private visitors and mitigate the impacts these boats are doing to the grass flats and dune systems.”
The company had no comment on the plan, said Emily Golden, a public relations manager at Priority Marketing, speaking for Captiva Cruises. “(It) is not involved in the scheduling for this meeting or involved in the management plan,” she said, but referred to the company’s statement emailed to The News-Press on Saturday.
It noted that for 25 years, the company has led excursions as the park’s official state concessionaire “to share the beauty of this unique barrier island with visitors and our community. Captiva Cruises was founded by a known conservationist with recognized efforts for tourism and eco-innovation, and we are proud to uphold this culture of good stewardship for our islands and environment today. Our cruises to Cayo Costa celebrate the island’s natural environment as we educate passengers on the native wildlife, unique eco-system and emphasize the importance of preserving its natural beauty … Guides monitor the beaches throughout shelling excursions to ensure passengers are staying within the state-owned public land and respectful of the area. We are committed to following all DEP policies for the conscientious use of these state-owned docks …”
Nanney and others in Save Cayo Costa see the company’s public relations efforts as an attempt to “create a flurry of letters and input from Captiva Cruises customers … to take the wind out of our sails. Not gonna let that happen.”
The crux of the matter, Nanney says, is this: “Of course the south dock trip is a great excursion for $45, but at the expense of the island’s resources?” she asks. “We have to look at the big picture here. Unchecked human impacts that can be controlled should be controlled – by the very people who are bound by law to protect them.”
Share your thoughts
Email the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about Cayo Costa at FLStateParkPlanning@FloridaDEP.gov