Are visitors loving Cayo Costa to death? Debate heats up over wild 'paradise' island

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

Thirty-two years ago, Clyde Butcher stepped off a boat and into paradise. The images of wild, windswept splendor he shot that day on Cayo Costa are among the master photographer's most prized.

Now, Butcher is adding his voice to a growing chorus of concern about commercial impact to the 9-mile-long barrier island, 99% of it a state park. Only 40 of its nearly 3,000 acres are in private hands.

“It’s very romantic,” Butcher said. “This is what people fantasize about. We have enough beaches that have already been destroyed,” he said.

Butcher has joined more than a thousand people petitioning the state to stop letting boatloads of tourists dock twice daily at “The Narrows” on the island’s slender southern stretch.

He also wrote to the state: “I treasure the island because, as a photographer, it was one of the first natural places that I connected with in Florida. It is one of the very few undeveloped islands along our shores, and we must keep it safe.

“To endanger the most sensitive area of Cayo Costa Island with both large boats and many, many tourists should not be allowed. It makes no environmental sense.”

By the way:Rare island estate on Captiva sets new record for Lee County's most expensive home

A Captiva Cruises boat filled with passengers approaches  a state park dock on Cayo Costa recently.

'We thought our land would be preserved'

On Tuesday, a group of environmental advocates, boaters, island residents, planners, park visitors and others “deeply concerned about the negative impacts (at) the least resilient and most vulnerable section of the park,” sent a 74-page letter to the state. The goal: To convince the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is in charge of the park, “to stop commercial activities at the ‘south dock’ because they are negatively impacting the park’s irreplaceable resources,” they wrote.

Others are weighing in as well. The Arcadia physician who sold the state his property with the original dock in the 1970s, says the department “clearly misrepresented” its intentions for the land." Larry Garrett wrote to the department last month. “The fact that you are allowing the very land you are supposed to protect to be destroyed by human impact when it was sold for preservation is unacceptable.”

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Previously:Luxury fishing camp retreat planned for Pine Island Sound

A  state park dock on Cayo Costa. The dock is used by  Captiva Cruises and the public.

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, who was instrumental in preserving the island while he was in the Florida Legislature, was a cosponsor of the 1970s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program (EEL). “Even back in those days, we were already saying, ‘We don’t want Lee County to look like Broward and Dade and we need to protect these things,’ and we were able to make that happen.”

On a recent trip to the island, Mann was impressed by Captiva Cruises’ instructions to visitors to protect the island’s natural systems, he says, but alarmed by the dock’s presence in a fragile mangrove wetland.

“How did the boardwalk across the red mangroves get approved in the first place?” he asked in a May 12 letter to the state. “Mangroves possess special protection statewide. If the state approved this invasion of the mangrove habitat, how do we say no when the next application appears? As you review the management plan for this unit, I would ask that you consider my questions, and take the necessary steps to avoid erosion of the various protective measures taken over the years to assure the original intent of the EEL program.”

Pat and Margi Nanney stroll on their beach front property on Cayo Costa. They have placed no tresspassing signs because of the increase in park visitors.

‘They cut this corner all the time’

With its creamy, shell-studded sweep of shoreline, aquamarine waters and calm interior lagoon, it’s not hard to understand Cayo Costa’s appeal. Yet in recent years, its very loveliness has become a liability, advocates say, as ferries haul thousands of people over each month for excursions.

Those visitors endanger nearby sand dunes, sea turtle habitat, shorebird nesting sites and rare native plant communities, advocates say, while the 45-plus-foot tour boats that ferry them over tear up seagrass beds and blast out sandy holes, especially at low tide.

Captiva Cruises runs twice-daily trips that dock at a thin stretch of land on the south end known as The Narrows – not at the visitor center, where campers arrive and many boaters moor.

“This is where they blow through,” says island homeowner Margi Nanney, gesturing to a denuded underwater patch as her husband Pat pilots their boat. “The channel’s over there,” Pat says, “and you can see by the grass they cut this corner all the time.”

Margi Nanney goes through files on her computer while hanging out in her home on Cayo Costa. She has been visiting the island for four decades. Nanney is concerned about the environmental impacts of visitors on the island.

Much broader to the north, the roughly mullet-shape island tapers sharply before its southern tail end, marked by the hook of Pelican Bay.

The concern centers around the use of a bay-side dock carved into a red mangrove forest. Since 2016, cruise boats carrying up to 50 passengers have unload there twice daily for beach trips. Rebuilt after Hurricane Charley mangled it in 2004, the Narrows dock isn’t the only place tour boats can land.

There’s a larger, T-shaped dock to the north, with more slips, a ranger station, bathrooms and a tram to the beach, all of which The Narrows lacks.

Captiva Cruises has used the north dock for years, but the southern site offers a quick, shady stroll to the beach. As visitors troop across the center of the island to the beach, they leave a concave track some advocates fear could become a storm’s path of least resistance, potentially leading to a breach.

Captiva Cruises maintains this Cayo Costa trail, which advocates warn could become a path for surging water in a storm.

Captiva Cruises tends the trail, keeping it raked and free of roots. Hundreds of feet daily have shaped a smooth, sandy trough. Should a storm bring a rush of water, it’ll roll right through the path-turned-ditch, advocates say, possibly slicing the island in two. There’s precedent: The surge from 2004’s Hurricane Charley, for example, severed Upper Captiva at that island’s narrowest point.

Island homeowner Dan Trescott, a professional planner whose expertise is in hurricane evacuation, storm surge and mitigation planning, warns: "The storm surge will seek the narrowest and lowest elevation to move across the island and it will be the path used by these thousands of people."

Yes, barrier islands are dynamic systems, and such breaks can happen naturally, he says, but the foot-trodden trough unacceptably encourages the possibility.

The balance between access to public preserves and ecological preservation is a delicate one, but some, like Trescott, say visitors risk loving the place to death.

“The island is being destroyed literally by hundreds of cuts,” he wrote to the state. “This dock and path across The Narrows must be closed as soon as possible so the island can recover back to its pristine state with the necessary mitigation paid for by the state from the proceeds generated by the private boat owner and the state. … If another access location for the public can’t be found, using the existing access from the park docks that can handle the many tens of thousands of people that will be coming to Cayo Costa Island State Park in the future may be the only option.”

Visitors dropped of by a Captiva Cruises boat begin to tour the island of Cayo Costa. It is considered one of the gems of Lee County's tourist attractions.

'Not enough evidence at this time'

Trescott, Nanney and others level sharp criticism at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for reversing its own position on use of the south dock.

At one time, the potential for damage apparently worried park officials, because in a 2020 draft of its periodically reviewed management plan, it proposed ending cruise landings at The Narrows.

“Visitor-use impacts to the natural communities and shorebird/sea turtle nesting habitat have occurred on the beach side of the trail extending from the south dock, indicating the need for closure of this site for facilitated direct public access,” the draft read. “Reduced visitation at this site is expected to result in gradual recovery of the observed impacts. Due to resource impact concerns (i.e., seagrass beds and mangrove swamp) and poor navigability of the shallow waters along this segment of the island, alternative locations for a southern concession dock and beach access trail were determined infeasible …. Concession ferry access will continue to be facilitated through the docks at Pelican Bay."

However, that has since been scrubbed from the current draft.

Asked why, spokeswoman Weesam Khoury wrote in an email: “As the park is reachable only by boat or kayak, providing a ferry service is an essential component of providing public access to this treasured resource … The park has a small dock and boardwalk, along with a narrow trail that leads directly to the beach. Based on claims regarding possible ecological impacts, the department considered amending its unit management plan. Upon further consideration, which included review by the park biologist, it was determined that there is not enough evidence at this time to warrant closure of the dock, which would significantly impact public access.”

Though The News-Press requested the review, the department did not immediately provide it.

Longtime environmental consultant Dick Anderson cries foul. He says the agency is reaching out to public officials advocates have contacted, “including the offices of Frank Mann and State Representative Adam Botana (whose district includes Cayo Costa), in a manner which is fraudulent,” Anderson said. “Their claims of an ‘environmental assessment’ showing no impacts to the resource, along with the claim of stepped up monitoring are untrue. As far as we can tell there is no monitoring of anything by park staff, to include visitation counts at the south dock.”

Staff will “continue to diligently monitor for any ecological impacts to ensure protection of Cayo Costa State Park,” Khoury wrote in an email, though her agency didn’t provide requested reports or details on the particulars of those efforts either. “(And) any updates to the unit management plan of the park must be approved by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which will provide an opportunity for public input.”

Visitors dropped of by a Captiva Cruises boat begin to tour the island of Cayo Costa. It is considered one of the gems of Lee County's tourist attractions.

The relationship between the state and the cruise line has not been without trouble.

The chronically understaffed agency (at last check it had 282 open positions)  has had to dun Captiva Cruises for money the concessionaire promised for restoration as a condition of its contract.

In a report to DEP as it attempted to negotiate a payment schedule, the company reported it made $1.1 million in revenue from its Cayo Costa trips in 2019, which dropped to $660,000 in 2020.

Related coverage:Southwest Florida remembers Captiva Cruises' Paul McCarthy

In March, after a series of offers and counter offers on repaying the company’s balance due, a DEP attorney sent a letter to the company’s law firm.

“The Department is unable to accept your offers of $40,000 payable in the next 15 days or $45,000 payable over the next nine months … This is our counteroffer: Despite the delinquency in the payment, the Department will accept $45,950 without assessing interest if fully paid within 10 days. The Department will also work with Captiva Cruises to mutually terminate the current Contract and enter into a replacement agreement for ferry services. If your client rejects this counteroffer, the Department will have no choice but to  terminate the Contract and seek a new call for business plans for future ferry services.  Further, the Department may seek to recover the outstanding monies owed through any legal recourse available to it.”

The matter was eventually resolved.

‘Exploited for profit’

The most recent deadline for public input was Monday. The department got an earful from citizens like Nanney, Anderson, Trescott and avid Cape Coral boater Randy Johnson, who wrote, “The resource is being exploited for profit!”

“My daughter grew up there, basically,” Johnson told The News-Press. “When I go camping with my family, there currently are 11 slips in Pelican Bay (at the north, ranger station end) – that’s it – that’s for 40 campsites,” he said. “I’ve got to fight for slips with day trippers, campers, etc., and of the 11 that are there, only six are appropriate for my boat.

“It’s ridiculous. If this were a land-based park it would be as if you only have 11 parking spots.”

Barring big tour boats from the south dock would free up additional spaces for public use, he says.

“They just don’t get it,” Johnson said. “It’s like they’re saying, we’re going to take up these parking spaces for a bus … So I’m concerned that access is being usurped away from private boaters who are the lifeblood of the estuaries here (to) provide exclusivity once again to the park vendor ferry at the expense of private boaters.”

Visitors dropped of by a Captiva Cruises boat begin to tour the island of Cayo Costa. It is considered one of the gems of Lee County's tourist attractions.

He also worries “about all those trips back and forth every day with the large boat through very shallow water. There should be a quota, say, of 10 people a day, or 25. But not 100. And that should be shared between private boaters and charter captains. It doesn’t have to be a 40-foot boat.”

'Stakeholder input was short-circuited'

After attending all the meetings about the plan, boater Johnson came away dismayed by the public input process.

“It seems like the stakeholder input was short-circuited,” he said. “Captiva Cruises was at those meetings, but they chose not to speak up – to say nothing,” yet the park’s current plan favors their interests, he said.

“I think you get lawyers and a little bit of saber rattling and the state just cowers because they want it simplified. They say, ‘Just give us the money and we’ll deputize you and you can manage it." Private industry comes here and waves money and says, ‘Hey, I can solve all your problems,’ and they just bow down and say, ‘OK, whatever you want, just handle it for us.’ And I find it interesting that the concessionaire was supposed to invest money as part of their deal, and DEP had to remind them to pay.”

His beef with the DEP goes back to 2016, when the department allowed Captiva Cruises to lock the dock’s gate, then quickly back-pedaled after boater outcry and a News-Press reporter’s questions.

But, warned Ranger Chad Lach at the time in a 2016 News-Press story about the kerfuffle,  "If the public is getting in the way too often, we'll probably put the lock back on."

Lach declined to answer this question, however: How can the public possibly be in the way, on public land?

Now, Johnson says, the DEP’s cozy relationship with Captiva Cruises is once again jeopardizing public access to the island.

“DEP gifting exclusivity of the south dock to the concessionaire sets a very dangerous precedent,” he says. “Taking away access from private boaters is a disturbing trend that DEP seems oblivious to.”

Family-owned Captiva Cruises, which declined to comment for this report, is a powerful player in Lee County’s tourist-focused economy. Many people familiar with their operations to whom The News-Press reached out, including charter captains, consultants, tourism officials, environmental nonprofits and others would not publicly comment on their Cayo Costa policies.

A Captiva Cruises boat filled with passengers approaches  a state park dock on Cayo Costa recently.

Advocates point out that every cruise passenger is a paying park customer. Captiva Cruises collects park admission as part of its ticket price. DEP didn’t immediately say how much the trips bring in annually, but when it was haggling with the agency over its unpaid debt, the company reported that $1.1 million in revenue from its Cayo Costa trips in 2019.

Captiva Cruises referred questions about that arrangement to its Collier County-based law firm, Woodward Pires & Lombardo, P.A.

Following more than a week of emails, attorney Zach Lombardo declined an interview for this report, writing in an email, “Captiva Cruises, as a concessionaire of the Department of Environmental Protection, is in agreement with the Department’s statements and has no further comment at this time.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the next management plan, which is up for a vote on  June 11. Unless the oversight committee amends it, the current draft allowing continued ferry service at The Narrows will continue. And that, Butcher says, makes no environmental sense.

"There’s no need to have a big commercial thing going on there and destroying what’s left," he said. "We must keep it safe."

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