Gulf of Mexico
Sanibel Island

FL - Perfect paradise: How the CIA helped fight developers eyeing Sanibel Island

Developers have had their eyes on the island for almost 200 years. Sanibel tried to kill me twice, once with riptides, the other with alligators. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the island manages to occupy a place in my heart.

Maybe it’s because when I was a kid in the ’70s, my dad, a conservationist-minded sort, told me about the checks on development that preserved much of the island.

But nobody ever told me how the CIA helped make that happen.

Developers have had their eyes on the island for almost 200 years. Claiming Spanish land grants, the Florida Peninsula Land Company was organized in 1836 by a group of New Yorkers and a St. Augustinian named Lot Clark. Their claim extended from the mouth of the Withlacoochee to its headwaters in the Green Swamp, east to the St. Johns River, south to Okeechobee, and then west to the Gulf, including any of the coastal barrier islands between those points.

On Sanibel, the company plotted 50 home sites bordered by farmlands. This model is alive today in modern “agrihoods,” except the amenity of a local farm was subsistence-based rather than a luxury for this development.

The development met with moderate success until legal troubles, the Second Seminole War, and a hurricane that overtopped the island with saltwater, ruining the soil caused the dissolution of the company and abandonment of the settlement.

The island sat primarily ignored until after the Civil War, when planters came in and grew sugar cane and citrus until another hurricane overtopped the island in 1926, leaving the soil unusable from the saltwater.

But a parallel industry had shaped in the early part of the 20th century around tarpon fishing, and the focus shifted from agriculture to tourism.

One of those tourists was Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling.

Darling’s outdoorsmanship and conservationist views aligned with the goals of The New Deal, which eventually landed him the position of Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, later known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

During his tenure in that position, Darling created the National Wildlife Refuge program and, utilizing his talent as an artist, designed the agency’s distinctive blue goose logo.

But the political world wasn’t the right environment for Darling; pushback on his initiatives left him disillusioned. He left government work in 1935 and became an advocate for wildlife, forming the General Wildlife Federation (now known as the National Wildlife Federation) to lobby for wildlife conservation. He also returned to Sanibel as one of its winter residents.

One of his efforts, the Inter-Island Conservation Association — comprised of green-minded residents of Captiva and Sanibel — successfully lobbied the Harry S. Truman administration and facilitated creation of the Sanibel Wildlife Refuge.

After his passing, the government renamed the refuge, and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge today provides a meaningful bulkhead for preserving land from development and maintaining the island’s natural beauty and environmental significance.

Until 1963, Sanibel was only accessible by ferry, frustrating those who would develop it. With the construction of the causeway from the mainland, those developers rolled in. They bulldozed mangroves, dredged, filled and established a foothold at the base of the new means of access.

As an unincorporated area of Lee County, the island was subject to the county’s comprehensive development plan, which, when revealed, showed the beaches and shorelines lined with condos and high-rises.

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