MARCO ISLAND, Florida (Reuters) - When the Mackle brothers, Elliot, Robert and Frank Jr., first set foot on the deserted beaches of Marco Island in 1962 there were more pelicans, terns and mosquitoes than people.
With it white sand beaches and gentle waves from the Gulf of Mexico, the brothers had planned to create a new resort on Marco Island, the largest in the chain of Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, with hotels and homes that would become the Hawaii of the East.
A large part of their vision was realized in the next decade but conservationists and environmentalists, eager to preserve the natural habitat, blocked the final phases of development.
“It was the first big street fight where the greens got a real victory. Before that, we had been written off as a joke. Marco Island put us on the map,” said David Guest, head of the Florida Regional Office of EarthJustice.
He remembers Marco Island as an untouched beach in the 1950s when Florida was still an outpost undiscovered by suntanned tourists.
Today, 80 percent of Marco rises high with hotels and condominiums, housing a population of 16,000 residents and 45,000 visitors. The 20 percent that wasn’t developed ended the Mackles’ dream and changed the way America protects its sensitive lands, according to Guest.
Like Hawaii, Marco Island has a unique collection of wildlife, including manatees, dolphins and ground nesting birds. As a western gateway to the Everglades, mangrove forests, saw grass marshes, and palm hammocks are within a short drive of Marco Island.
“These islands are the most alike and the furthest apart in the U.S.,” said Herb Savage, 93, one of the chief architects of Marco Island, comparing them to Hawaii.
Savage, who still lives on Marco Island, designed modest island-themed homes with white tile flat roofs and wood shakes, giving a village charm to the community.
At the center stood The Voyager, a beachfront hotel, now replaced by the Marco Island Marriot Beach Resort, which remained true to the original Polynesian theme in design and service. From its peaked roof to its Balinese spa and Kurrents Restaurant it offers aloha culture and delicacies.
It was a combination of new environmental responsibilities granted to the Army Corps of Engineers, the formation of the Collier County Conservancy and a study about the importance of mangrove forests that halted further development, according to Savage and “The Last Paradise, the Building of Marco Island,” by Douglas Waitley.
The Collier County Conservancy, fresh from victory after it formed the Rookery Bay nature preserve, worried that the nearby Marco Island dredging would pollute their protected lands. It joined forces with the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund.
The environmentalists won and the brothers were broken financially when they were denied permits to dredge environmentally sensitive areas for development.
“It was a big deal locally. Today, Rookery Bay is doing great and the Ten Thousand Islands are preserved,” said Guest.
Even after all these years, Savage cannot talk about the end of his design dreams without emotion.
“I will never understand why,” he said, believing that his plans for a middle class playground would not have harmed the island. “It would have been so beautiful and so much fun for everyone who came here.”
Sandi Riedemann, executive director of the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce, said the last of the Florida islands to be developed, the last paradise, is Marco Island.
“It is the most beautiful side of the Everglades and we have to protect it.”
Editing by Patricia Reaney