Lke Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, a concerted group of community leaders and philanthropists are speaking for the trees in Collier County—planting a legacy for the environment and future generations.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma roared ashore near Marco Island on September 10, packing 115 mile-per-hour winds. It was a devastating blow that destroyed homes, businesses, and infrastructure and decimated the Collier County landscape. The City of Naples alone lost almost 2,000 trees, so the county-wide toll, while unknown, was enormous. Unfortunately, reestablishing a tree canopy can take several years or decades.
From government agencies to local nonprofits, there are several collaborations and projects unfolding across Collier County to plant storm-hardy trees. Trees are imperative to the health and well-being of residents, wildlife, and the built environment. They provide shade, bird and wildlife habitats, erosion and water run-off control, beautification, transpiration, and photosynthesis, a process that includes converting carbon dioxide—a contributor to climate change—into oxygen. “Planting right trees in the right locations can be an important tool in addressing the effects of climate change,” says Naples Botanical Garden President/CEO Donna McGinnis.
There are other benefits, too. According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, shade trees increase property values “an average of 10 percent and as much as 20.” It also notes that properly located shade trees “around buildings can save 20 to 50 percent on energy bills,” among many other benefits.
“What we plant today is part of a legacy we leave for future generations,” says Collier Community Foundation President/CEO Eileen Connolly-Keesler.
Collier Community Foundation Rolls Up Its Sleeves
A few years ago, the Collier Community Foundation established a capital campaign called “Your passion. Your Collier.” to raise funds for six critical areas, including the environment. Campaign co-chair Rob Funderburg, and his wife, Cathy, immediately stepped up with a $500,000 environmental donation to fund a new project called Collier Trees.
Often, local governments don’t build in generous landscaping budgets for new projects or don’t have large enough reserves to replace lost trees. Connolly-Keesler explains that is where the foundation can facilitate the distribution of philanthropic dollars for identified projects and ensure they are completed to donors’ satisfaction. “Many projects need to happen, but resources just haven’t been there for the city and county to do what they need to do,” she says. “Donors have stepped up to help make a difference, so we make sure to spend their dollars exactly as intended.”
Collier Trees has invested $450,000 to plant 507 mostly native trees at 12 public sites in Immokalee, Naples, Everglades City, East Naples, and Goodland. One involved the planting of 56 trees to provide natural shade at the popular Immokalee Sports Complex so spectators wouldn’t wither in the hot sun.
The Funderburgs’ donation also has beautified East Naples Community Park through a $67,930 grant for the installation of a palm allée (botanical alleyway) and flowering trees. Another Collier Trees grant will landscape Marco Island’s Veterans’ Community Park after its expected July completion.
In 2020, to honor the foundation’s thirty-fifth anniversary, the botanical garden distributed 3,500 free saplings to residents. With a Collier Trees grant, garden staff raised the trees from seeds and instructed recipients on caring for them and on their benefits in the landscape.
An important component of Collier Trees: These new trees are either native to Florida or the Caribbean, so they are storm resistant and don’t require excess water or fertilizer because they’ve evolved naturally with the local climate and soils.
Rob Funderburg, a retired banker, has enjoyed seeing Collier Trees take root through the foundation’s oversight. “The process has gone very well. We’re very pleased to see the impact and excited to see the benefits for the community going forward into the future,” he says. Before relocating to Naples in 2017 from Illinois, he championed the distribution of more than 10,000 conifer seedlings while chairman of Alpine Bank & Trust Co., co-founded the Boone County Community Foundation, and worked with several conservation districts to amass and donate more than 1,400 acres of environmentally sensitive land.
“I first became interested in nature and the environment as a child while on family trips to national parks, and I started supporting environmental causes while in college,” he says. Cathy serves on the Naples Botanical Garden board. Conservation “runs in our family a little bit with both she and I working in parallel ways,” he adds. Their favorite aspect of Collier Trees, he notes, is “being part of a collaborative effort” with nonprofits, local municipalities, and the county for a “positive environmental and aesthetic impact on the community.”
Neapolitans’ generosity has been the connection between organizations and a stronger community. The Blair Family Foundation contacted the foundation to coordinate a three-year, dollar-for-dollar matching grant challenge to reforest the City of Naples. The city was able to raise $199,213 from neighborhoods, individuals, and homeowner associations, matched for a total of $398,426 in urban reforestation funding. The city estimated the price for a new tree between $800 and $5,000.
Outreach and Conservation at Naples Botanical Garden Thriving
In addition to making Collier Trees a boots-on-the-ground reality, the Naples Botanical Garden is working on conservation and community education on many fronts. Among them is a 205,000-seed bank representing 40 rare, threatened species that are underrepresented in botanical collections. McGinnis calls the rare seed bank a “Noah’s ark” for ecological restoration. For example, it is storing seeds for Puerto Rican cacti afflicted by a harmful mealybug. Once the pest is under control, the seeds will be sent to Puerto Rico for reforestation.
Another is the development of the $15.5 million, 66,000-square-foot Evenstad Horticulture Campus. It will consist of specialized greenhouses and nurseries for growing plants, laboratories, and the seed bank. It is named in honor of board member Grace Evenstad and her late husband, Ken, longtime benefactors and lead donors for this project.
She’s been involved with the 12-year-old botanical site since day one. “Gardening is something I’ve always had a passion for,” she says. Her grandfather was a chemist and botanist, and she was also inspired by her parents. A longtime grape farmer, she (with her late husband) founded Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon in 1989 and works with about 40 vineyards in Burgundy’s famous Côte d’Or, where their other winery, Château de la Crée, is located.
Evenstad was “really moved” by the destruction at the garden after Hurricane Irma. “There were so many trees that went down—hundreds,” she recalls. She was “surprised that the garden was able to function so well without greenhouses.” The loss of large trees meant the loss of ground cover and understory flora. “All of a sudden there was no shade, and everything fried,” she says.
The Evenstads donated the initial funds for the Evenstad Horticulture Campus, including for the site’s prep work—the grading, paving, and utilities infrastructure. “I want to see the garden continue to grow and it is,” she says. “It’s much better than it was before the hurricane.”
In Our Backyard: Mangrove Restoration
Since 2012, dedicated, hard-working teams have focused on what the Conservancy of Southwest Florida calls “one of the largest mangrove forest restorations in Florida history.” The conservancy, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Coastal Resources Group, Inc., City of Marco Island, Collier County, and state agencies have been trying to restore targeted areas within a 223-acre stressed mangrove forest that began with die-offs in the mid-1990s along San Marco Road (Route 92 and 92A) near Goodland because of the road and area development. Conservancy Environmental Science Director Kathy Worley—who’s been involved with the site since the ’90s—says Rookery Bay oversees the project; Coastal Resources Group is coordinating the physical site work. The conservancy is evaluating past and current projects to determine their success.
Some of the canopy has returned and terrestrial and aquatic creatures are returning to areas that were restored, Worley reports. She hopes to see the same results with newly restored areas. Restoration involves “replumbing” the hydrological flow with culverts and other engineering methods to reestablish tidal flushing—the natural ebb and flow of saltwater and freshwater in the brackish system to occur.
Southwest Florida is home to red, black, and white mangroves that live around estuarine waters. Red mangroves straddle land and water, where they become nurseries for crustaceans and baby fish to grow larger, protected from predators. They also store carbon, provide wildlife habitat, and break wave energy during storms, Worley points out. “If you like to eat fish, you’ve got to like mangroves,” she says. People used to view mangrove thickets as fetid, mosquito-infested detriments, she notes, but now the importance and function of these ecosystems is widely understood. “We’re trying to fix our mistakes,” Worley says.
Other Garden Initiatives
- Florida Gulf Coast University’s Everglades Wetland Research Park, housed at the Naples Botanical Garden, studies red mangrove wetlands to understand their carbon-storing functions and how to create and restore wetlands.
- Working with county and city agencies from Marco Island to Fort Myers, homeowner associations, and water, golf course, and public utilities managers to teach landscape installers and decision-makers about plant selection, location, and care. “Putting the right tree in the right place is critical,” says McGinnis.
- Collaborated a few years ago with several organizations to protect giant air plants in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park from the Mexican bromeliad weevil.
- Setting aside more than half of the garden as a Southwest Florida habitat featuring 300-plus native plants, which includes 26 native species found in only one other botanical garden collection and 35 species not known to exist in any other collection.
- Collaborating with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to protect and conserve populations of native coastal species, including native thatch palm.
- A dedicated Conservation Committee consisting of experts and academics providing guidance.
- Seeking state and federal resiliency funding for projects unique to Collier County, such as experimental beach dune plantings.