Deciding to move to Naples while vacationing in Southwest Florida has been known to happen, especially as of late. However, Christy Duff’s journey to Naples residency is unusual, and a bit more old-fashioned. In 2017, her doctor in northern New York thought a warmer climate would help her overcome continued health problems. This was the type of classic prescription that once sent United States presidents and industry bigwigs to the Sunshine State. Christy and her husband, Shane, thought they’d try Naples, maybe just for six months.
After the Duffs married in 2006, they honeymooned at the La Playa Beach & Golf Resort. So, when Christy had to find herself a healthier place to live, she naturally thought of Naples. One day, after relocating here in December 2017, they toured the Rookery Swamp, the no man’s land off the interstate on the way to Miami. They were a thousand miles from where they used to live, but they felt even further than that, like they had been transported to the primordial world of the dinosaurs. The natural limestone that once served as a seabed rises and falls there, as trails cut through firebush and around ancient cypress. “There’s such beauty in it,” Christy recalls. “It’s just so raw.”
With her health improving, Christy and Shane made a home in Naples and continued exploring nature. They also chose a meaningful quest: to preserve swamps like the one that had so captured their imagination.
Shane now sits as board president of the Cypress Cove Landkeepers, a nonprofit that aims to buy and preserve as much of Southwest Florida’s native land as it can. Christy spends a lot of her free time working for the organization, handling their robust social media presence and taking classes through the University of Florida’s Florida Master Naturalist Program, planning for what’s next.
The Landkeepers’ efforts began with the $203,000 purchase in 2019 of 10 acres that were once the home of late zoologist Bob Gore. The stilt home he designed himself is now the Gore Nature Education Center, which the Landkeepers are restoring to use as a welcome center and hub for educating visitors on the value of wild local spaces. Gore got the preservation bug in the early 1980s, when he began purchasing land piece by piece to create a 180-acre sanctuary. Back then, Gore had recently retired and was renting a condo on a golf course in Naples, plotting out an idea he had dreamed about for decades: to create a sanctuary. His son, Dan Gore, recalls coming to visit his father in 1986. They spent the night looking for a sighting of Halley’s Comet while talking about his dad’s efforts to assemble various parcels of untouched forest.
Dan Gore returned to visit his father again in 1990. By then, Bob Gore had built his cracker-style home on an elevated spot, 10 feet above the nearby swampland. During the day, the Gores cut the first trails through the property; at night, they stayed up late playing music that rang out through the forest. They’d wake in the morning to the sounds of the jungle around them. “It was truly a magnificent house in the middle of the forest,” recalls Dan, who now lives in Port St. John and has worked as a software developer for the space industry for 32 years.
When Bob Gore died in 2017, the land passed to a trust in hopes of preserving it. That almost didn’t happen, and Dan says he feared it would end up in the hands of a developer. Instead, local environmentalists Bobby Lee Davenport and Jo Vaccarino worked to raise the funds and create the organization that would become the Landkeepers. Then the Duffs showed up, and Dan says they’ve been “extremely instrumental in making sure this moved forward. Once they got on board, this idea really picked up its pace.”
Once Shane and Christy saw the Gore property, they were smitten. “There was just something about the property. It was unique,” Shane says. “We realized that if we could get school kids out there, we could change the way they see the world around them and the way they interact with the world around them.”
For the Duffs, the project is a diversion from their life up north. Before they came to town, Christy spent 10 years running an organic health care spa in Troy, New York; Shane, meanwhile, continues his work as the director of market development for Alair Homes, which builds high-end houses. He also owns a consulting business and often has a couple other projects cooking. It has been that way since he was 14 years old and went out on his own, getting a GED not long after and landing a job at a body shop.
Sure, it’s ironic that Shane, working for a homebuilder, wants to stop growth from spreading east. But he says action is needed to keep Naples from continuing to sprawl. Hopefully, the Duffs say, their work will preserve one of the last pieces of native Florida: the same wild swamp that convinced them to make this place home.
The Landkeepers had been working on securing the funding to purchase Bob Gore’s property for years when the deal finally closed in 2019. Shane says next they’ll look at buying more land, and then adding conservation corridors that could allow animals to travel between preserves. Just on the lands Bob Gore preserved, you can find a zoo’s worth of native critters, including bears, coyotes, owls, panthers, and spotted skunks.
One of many community partners, the Naples Garden Club is on deck to resuscitate fruit trees and create a garden along the wooden boardwalk that runs up toward the welcome center. When those plants are installed and in bloom, they will create an organic greeting to the nooks and crannies in the nearby nature trails.
In 2020, an anonymous donor contributed $400,000 to the Landkeepers, money the organization is using to rehab Gore’s home. Now, Christy is focusing her attention on developing programming for the school field trips the nature center plans to host starting this fall. Next up on the agenda is hiring an executive director and identifying neighboring lands that can also be acquired. “We really need to get as much of that land under conservation as possible,” Shane says.