U.S. island was green victory to save slice of paradise

Thu Apr 5, 2012 1:49pm EDT
 
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By Verna Gates

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.   Continued...

 
A view of the Everglades vista along the Tamiami Trail in Florida is seen in this June 2009 handout photo. 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. REUTERS/Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB/Handout