Sanibel Island

by Kristie Anders, Education Director, The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

Over the centuries, winds and waves move the sea sands in a constant process of erosion and deposition. In the shallow waters off Florida’s Gulf coast, these forces build shoals and sand bars - and emerging islands - adjacent to the mainland. Thus were formed barrier islands, defending the mainland from the destruction of hurricane and storm surge.

Among these barrier islands, Sanibel is unique. The natural features, together with a climate that is subtropical in summer and temperate in the winter, create unexcelled habitat for a diversity of birds, reptiles, mammals and aquatic life.

Sanibel is Southwest Florida’s only barrier island with a significant southern exposure. Along its south-facing shores, the currents of the Gulf of Mexico deposit countless shells with every tide. And Sanibel is Southwest Florida’s only remaining double-barrier island, in which two sets of higher dunes catch the rains to produce an extensive system of interior fresh water. At and just beneath the surface, a rain-fed fresh water lens protects the interior wetlands from salt water intrusion.

Vegetation is luxuriant. On the ridges, cabbage palms, strangler figs, gumbo limbo, wax myrtle, wild coffee and a host of semi-tropical shrubs flourish. In the swales, spartina grass, sawgrass, leather ferns, cattails, sedges and purslanes dominate.

The island’s reputation is known world-wide for shelling, birding and fishing. The world’s richest fishing tournament takes place just a few miles up the coast at Boca Grande where the Silver King is the mighty tarpon, and the prize for first place is $100,000. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was one of Roger Tory Peterson’s personal favourites for wading and shorebirds. Shelling on these shores is touted to be the best in this hemisphere.


The history of conservation began with a vision in the 1930’s, when the island was already recognised for its bounty. Land was leased from the State of Florida in 1945, to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, through the efforts of Jay Norwood Darling. By 1948, hunting was no longer allowed on the islands or the estuary. Through the years, land was acquired, particularly on the bayside, where mangrove trees protected the shoreline, provided a haven for juvenile fishes and produced a tremendous amount of food for estuarine wildlife.

Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling passed away in 1962, just before the causeway opened like a flood gate. Friends of Mr Darling wanted his efforts to be remembered and worked to convince the US Fish and Wildlife Service to change the name of the refuge in his honour. Other island residents became concerned the State of Florida may not renew the lease on their land, and began to work for permanent acquisition.

In 1967, after five years of intensive lobbying, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge became a reality. But the visionary people who had carried the fight to establish it, saw a further need.

The new refuge consisted largely of coastal mangrove swamps; the interior fresh-water wetlands remained unprotected. This fresh water system resulting from the geologic accident of a double dune, was fragile and sensitive; such systems had already been lost in other barrier islands like Miami and Palm Beaches.

So they proceeded in the same year, 1967, to incorporate the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Inc. (SCCF). Its mission was to preserve the natural resources and wildlife habitat on and around the islands. The fledgling organisation, aided by The Nature Conservancy, promptly launched a drive to acquire land. Public response was immediate; more than $1 million was raised. The first main parcel of 207 acres along the Sanibel River was purchased. Volunteers laid 4.5 miles of trails through the dense vegetation. Within five years, in 1972, the site was opened to visitors. The Nature Centre building, added in 1977, includes an education room and exhibit area, which were further expanded in 1991.

Land Use Plan

The twelve thousand acre island is home to 5,500 year-round residents, and 12,000 additional winter residents. An estimated 6,000 workers commute to the island daily, and during the busy winter season an additional 10,000 - 15,000 visitors come across the causeway.

From the beginning, this community saw its natural resources as assets that were to be preserved, not exploited. Far different from most communities, the City developed a series of regulations and laws that protect wildlife and habitat, particularly the wetlands. The density and zoning requires a person own forty acres to build a single house in the mangrove areas, and twenty acres for a single house in the freshwater wetlands. The whole island's land use plan is a patchwork of various density assignments based on habitats, wildlife use and function of the ecosystems. The land use plan was not developed overnight.

It was just over twenty years ago, the citizens of Sanibel changed the course of history for their community. They chose to steer their own destiny, through incorporation as a city. Within months of incorporation, they adopted a new land use plan that protected the most environmentally sensitive lands on the island, but still allowed for reasonable development. The land use plan was based on years of research, and put together by biologists, planners, and lawyers. The basis for that plan was published in a book entitled, “The Sanibel Report - Formulations of a Comprehensive Land Use Plan Based on Natural Systems”.

In the introduction to that book, former chief of the US Environmental Protection Agency and now professor at Stanford University, William K. Reilly wrote about the tiny island community. “On November 5th, 1974, the citizens of Sanibel Island, Florida, took their destiny into their own hands. More than a thousand of them went to the polls; a sizeable majority, 64%, voted to incorporate the island as a city, empowered to cope firmly with the pressures of development. A building boom, spurred by construction in 1963, of a causeway joining Sanibel to the south-western Florida mainland, had soared nearly out of control, depleting the resources of the 12-mile-long barrier island.”

The first priority of the City Council was the development of a plan that would control and regulate growth on the island. SCCF played a major role in developing the comprehensive land use plan, funding research, locating and hiring consultants and holding public forums to educate the residents about the issues and possible solutions.

The land use plan divided the island into several distinct ecological zones. Specific density levels and construction standards were established for each zone, based upon the lands’ ability to sustain development while maintaining its ecological integrity and function. The more ecologically sensitive the land, the lower the density allowed and the stricter the development regulations. When the first plan was completed, the number of permitted dwelling units was reduced from the County’s 30,000 to under 9,000.

The following chart depicts a cross section of Sanibel Island, describing the ecological zones and types of development permitted in each. Note the interior wetlands are further defined as Upland Wetlands and Lowland Wetlands.

City regulations are very specific. For example, there is a limit on the footprint of the house, garage, driveway and other impervious surfaces to about 1/3 of the lot size. This allows rainwater to be absorbed and contribute to the freshwater lens. Even the type of vegetation allowed for landscaping is carefully governed. Only 25% of the vegetation is permitted to be non-native including sod. This reduces the necessity for watering and use of chemicals for fertiliser and pesticides.

To this day, preservation of natural resources and island ambience are highest on the list of priorities. After a series of public meetings and invitation for public input, a new vision statement that was adopted by the City in the spring of 1996. In part the vision statement includes the following:-

“The barrier island of Sanibel comprises a wide variety of natural and altered environments. The community of Sanibel strives to sustain ecological balance to preserve and restore natural settings. The people are sustained by the beauty and health of the island’s natural and restored habitats, and they rely on the co-ordinated vigilance of residents, government and private enterprise to protect and enhance these habitats.”

Through the years, the Refuge, SCCF and the City of Sanibel have worked collaboratively in preserving the vital wetlands and the integrity of the ecosystem, while allowing reasonable development to take place. The island through private and public efforts is being managed as a whole ecosystem.


The island’s greatest resource is its permanent residents, the majority of whom are retired or semi-retired. It is a community of volunteers - even City Council and the Planning Commissioners serve in a volunteer capacity, albeit elected.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation utilises the service of almost 250 volunteers. A wildlife rehabilitation hospital, a marine habitat research organisation, a friends of the Refuge society, and a shell museum are all island-based not-for-profit organisations that function with volunteers and are supported primarily by donations.

The City also encourages participation through various committees. The City Vegetation committee performs preconstruction site inspections to determine which native trees and shrubs should be saved in situ or moved. The City Wildlife Committee reviews properties for the presence of gopher tortoises, nesting birds and other protected wildlife. Both committees also serve in an advisory capacity to the council on a multitude of wildlife issues - feeding wildlife, handling alligator problems, protection of sea grass beds and more.

Just recently, the Wildlife Committee brought about the creation of special state legislation prohibiting live shelling on the island. The law is specific to Sanibel Island.

SCCF is a working partner with the City and the federal Refuge in habitat restoration and management efforts. Many properties of each of these three organisations are adjacent to one another, so restoration efforts are more cost effective when approached as a whole unit. Many of the wetland parcels have been heavily invaded with an aggressive non-native species called Brazilian pepper. Research indicates this plant which can grow as a monoculture, provides little in the way of habitat required for indigenous wildlife species.

Perhaps one of SCCF’s most important accomplishments lies in public awareness of the islands’ fragile ecosystems. Conservation education is a top priority. At least 15,000 people each year participate in educational programs that include guided walks, lectures and workshops. Teachers regularly bring students, visitors are drawn to the exhibit area, the reference library and herbarium are used by researchers and consultants. Outreach programs extend to schools, churches and civic groups. The islands’ popularity with visitors brings national and international attention to the area. These education efforts produce informed citizens, invaluable for public decision making.

Homeowners are assisted in developing landscape plans utilising native species. A program called Landscaping for Wildlife educates residents how to develop their land into a wildlife sanctuary. Butterfly gardening has been one of the most successful ambassadors for the program. SCCF’s Native Plant Nursery advocates integrated pest management, water conservation and organic gardening. The nursery has a retail sales area and maintains a diverse inventory of native vegetation.

Preserved Lands

SCCF remains true to its original mission to preserve the natural resources and wildlife habitat on and around the islands. It is sustained through the generosity of its members. In the past two years almost one million dollars has been raised to acquire over 40 acres; habitat restoration and management plans are being developed for endowment funding; education continues to expand the knowledge of residents and visitors, providing tools to steer the future of the island. Over half of the island’s 12,000 acres is in conservation hands - the federal Refuge, the City and SCCF.

The story of Sanibel is an intertwining of individuals, government and non-governmental organisations working together for a common goal. It is a place that strives for the harmonious existence of wildlife and people.

The natural resources are a strong economic asset. Tourism on the island thrives, despite a state-wide decline. People choose to vacation here for its reduced density, safety, clean and uncommercial beaches, and of course shells, birds, fish and other wildlife. Where else can people enjoy dolphins, manatees and bald eagles. Other communities may have beaches and the climate, but none compare to the rich tapestry of life woven in and around the community itself.

Cities can achieve high levels of natural resource protection, but not without the hearts, minds and resources of its citizens. The living testimony is the co-existence of wildlife and humans on this small barrier island. Great egrets walk along the busiest road seeking anoles and insects for food. Roseate spoonbills flock by the hundreds to the mudflats adjacent to the bayside mangrove forest. Bobcats and river otters rear their young among the freshwater wetlands and ridges. Residents stop traffic to assist a gopher tortoise across the road.

Protection of natural resources, held as a community’s vision, is imperative to success. Developing that vision requires awareness and education. It thrives when citizens value the resources, recognising the contributions made to sustaining their lives and the quality of the life they live.