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This month marks the one-year anniversary of when I left my Cleveland roots and planted new ones in Naples, accepting a position as the Friends of Rookery Bay’s first full-time executive director. I reflect on the past year in my new hometown and highlight challenges and opportunities ahead.

Little did I know five weeks into my position that life would change. Yet, for all the terrible impacts of Hurricane Irma, its outcome resonated the importance of Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which the Friends supports.

At 110,000 acres, the reserve encompasses 40 percent of Collier County’s coastline (from downtown Naples to the western edge of the Everglades). The reserve is literally our community’s backyard. Countless educational programs, research to restore mangrove habitat and monitor water quality, and stewardship efforts are imperative to protect Southwest Florida.

People are very passionate about organizations that enhance our quality of life. They are engaged as volunteers, donors and committee members in causes close to their heart. I witnessed this firsthand when a local family valuing science to management in order to preserve their new backyard, contributed $75,000 to the Friends to replace a reserve research vessel destroyed in Hurricane Irma. These commitments are critical to tackling challenges, including water quality issues, facing Southwest Florida.

Growing up on the shores of Lake Erie and often the butt of many “Mistake on the Lake” jokes, I became acutely aware of challenges facing our waterways. I earned a master’s of science in environmental studies and worked as a marine biologist before transitioning to nonprofit management.

The extensive red tide and blue-green algae blooms our community is dealing with bring flashbacks to my childhood. Messages have been pouring in from friends across the country — all eyes are on Collier and Lee counties. The decisions we make today to support research and sound management practices will dictate the future health and economy of Southwest Florida.

The reserve drives economic prosperity as recreational boaters, birders, kayaking guides, fishing tour captains, eco-tour operators and other businesses utilize waterways daily.

Friends of Rookery Bay will continue to advocate on behalf of our reserve and join our sister network of 29 other reserves to stop proposed legislation defunding the reserve system and its decades of work to support local communities.

Education is a driving force to ensure future generations continue protecting our backyard. Seeing the enthusiasm of fourth- and seventh-grade students who come to the reserve on field trips brings hope. For some, it’s the first time they have seen Collier County’s coastline, and they are amazed to discover the plants and animals that live near them. For others, their hands-on experience on a research boat, in the shallow bay waters or in the science labs ignites the understanding that they are the future stewards of this very special place.

In fact, 3,000 students attending St. Ann School, Naples High, Gulfview Middle and Seagate, Lake Park, Avalon and Shadowlawn elementary schools between 1968 and 1971 participated in the “Pennies for Preservation” campaign to save the reserve by protecting 1,600 acres of land and stopping a proposed bridge to Keewaydin Island. If you were one of these students, please let us know as we are celebrating Rookery Bay Research Reserve’s 40th anniversary.

I invite you to visit the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center (300 Tower Road). Aquariums, trails, an art gallery and guided nature tours await. Attend the free National Estuaries Day on Saturday, Sept. 29. Come to the Friends’ Bash for the Bay on March 15 and become a member to help protect your backyard. Find out more at rookerybay.org.

Barkoukis is executive director of the Friends of Rookery Bay.

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