Shell Island Road is not what it used to be. Sure, the southwestern Collier County road still remains shy of three miles long, with plant, wildlife, fishing and birding activities to keep any naturalist intrigued for hours. But the newly paved road is now littered with refuge and remains a constant cog in a wheel of too many environmental agencies, already saddled with budget cuts in the state.
Take a late afternoon scenic drive of Shell Island Road, located approximately halfway between Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Center and Marco Island, and one will see more than colors of the sunset.
The road, just off Collier Boulevard south of U.S. 41, has one year old paving and speed bumps to slow down fishermen. Boaters seem satisfied, as they use the free boat ramp at the end of the road on a daily basis. But with progress comes discarded trash to thousands of acres of sensitive lands that line both sides of the road. Litter is strewn about at the entrance and edges of Shell Island Road. There are limited refuse barrels along the road, so trash is often just thrown to the edge of the roadway.
From water bottles to plastic bags, old batteries, and sanitary napkin wrappers on the ground near unkempt Catclaw Trail and Monument Trail, it is evident the dreams of conservationists who once lived on Shell Island Road may soon be dashed by diminishing state and federal budgets, and lack of resources to protect the road located in the Ten Thousand Islands Aquatic Preserve and Rookery Bay’s reserve.
Shell Island Road 41 years ago
For more than 15 years, Dr. and Mrs. Bernie Yokel dedicated countless hours to the protection of the trees and native bird habitats along this stretch of road in Collier County. The Yokels rallied the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and a multitude of Naples and Marco Island residents and Florida agencies, to protect Shell Island Road and Rookery Bay from development, or outright destruction.
Bernie Yokel thoroughly examined the waters of Henderson Creek as a curious biologist, and his wife would challenge her young students at Tommie Barfield Elementary School on field trips to the road in the 1970’s. Shell Island Road was not only the Yokels passion, but a project they were especially proud of, and they ensured a lasting environmental awareness for future generations of their family and Collier residents.
Shell Island Road today
What the Yokels and others did not foresee, was pavement and speed bumps, added to Shell Island Road. With little fanfare, the road was paved last year. Watershed areas were filled, 13 culverts were added for water management, and an electric gate was installed to close and lock at sunset, as long as Florida Power and Light cooperated. But during a recent sunset, the gate remained open for anyone to enter and utilize the boat ramp throughout the early evening hours.
Chris Boland, a retired Navy serviceman and founder of Naples Kayak Company, knows firsthand about the issues facing Shell Island Road.
“People come into my shop and they complain about how the environment has changed there, and how they are not protecting it. When kayakers come into my store, I hear about how people are defecating in the bushes at the boat ramp, and I also heard they were using jet skis there,” Boland said. “My questions are, who is responsible? What should be done? And how do we control it?”
Florida Fish and Wildlife responds to concerns
However, Jayson Horadam, a 22-year veteran officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, disagrees with Boland’s assessment of Shell Island Road, thus far.
“We do routine inspections of Shell Island Road at the end of the boat ramp. It is supposed to be closed at sunset, but that is when the gate is working,” said Horadam. “We have 19 wildlife officers here to oversee everything, and the Friends of Rookery Bay help to maintain the road.”
Bearing in mind that Shell Island Road presents uncertain days in its upkeep, such as leftover brush from a recent clean up from Collier County Sheriff’s Office supervised work crews, Horadam steadfastly said that the roadside clutter was not a major issue for Shell Island Road.
“It’s one of the most pristine estuarine areas in the United States, and it is known for its bird watching, panthers, and white-tailed deer,” he said. “This is a reserve, and of course, we want people to enjoy the natural resources, but we want them to remember that a lot of it is protected.”