Financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and to educate the public about its importance.

A First Step in Creating an Interpretive Master Plan for the Boardwalk

by Patrick Higgins

Interpretive Workshop

Jennifer Rigby of The Acorn Group recording some of the hundreds of suggested interpretive topics for the Boardwalk development. Photo by Patrick Higgins

I was in downtown Naples for breakfast and the Martin Luther King Day parade when I recognized the back and the silver ponytail of Phil Fisher, my favorite local artist. He had set up his easel under a blue sky near the corner of 13th Avenue and 3rd Street South to capture, in his customary vibrant palette, a streetscape of stuccoed buildings, geraniums, cascading bougainvillea, multi-colored foliage and the interplay of light and shadow on the sidewalk.

The subject, as I glanced over the top of his canvas, was recognizable but not an exact reproduction. That’s not what a good artist does. He strips the scene down, creates something new and in the process reveals the essential hidden truth which engages the observer on an emotional level. That’s essentially what we, as Park interpreters do too, whether it’s orally, in writing, or through exhibits and signs.

Interpretation is not the mere provision of formation, but should spark interest, provoke, engage, enhance understanding and ultimately reveal the deeper meaning or significance of the resource. If effective it will make an emotional connection and elicit a response; that “Aha!” moment that will stay with the visitor, and perhaps change them forever, even inspiring some to take action.  That’s a tall order and doesn’t happen by accident. It takes planning.

Planning the physical side of Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk upgrade, with its new parking area, associated deceleration lane, proper restrooms, picnic shelter and a bridge across the canal leading to a multipurpose visitor center and whole new trail system over the salt marsh linking to the existing Boardwalk is well underway.

Kris and Jenny getting their feet wet

Kris Whipple (left) and Jennifer Rigby (right) of the Acorn Group getting their feet wet in the Fakahatchee. Photo by Patrick Higgins

But just as important is the interpretive planning for the site. On January 14th the Park and FOF took the first steps in a six month process to develop an Interpretive Prospectus by hosting an Interpretive Planning Workshop at Rookery Bay.   The event was facilitated by Jennifer Rigby and Kris Whipple from the Acorn Group, a specialist interpretive planning firm whom FOF have retained for the duration of this project. Both are expert NAI Certified Interpretive Planners with an impressive track record of successful projects across the country. Previously they literally got their feet wet during a very long day spent with Mike Owen, Renee Rau and me walking the ground, including a plunge into the swamp off East Main, emerging enthralled only as dusk was settling in. I think they’ve caught the Fakahabit.

The purpose of the Interpretive Prospectus is to flesh-out in sufficient detail, the exhibits, signage, visitor center contents, etc. to enable FOF to garner support and facilitate the fundraising for our portion of the project. It will allow us to go to the local donor community and show them exactly what their money will be used for. Part of the eventual output will be a four page fund-raising brochure. This will be followed later on by the development of a comprehensive Master Interpretive Plan. In this first phase we were focussing on identifying the interpretive goals, themes, sub-themes, and storylines for the expanded Boardwalk area.

As wide a spectrum of stakeholders in the Park were invited as possible. Attendees included Board members, Park and FOF volunteers, managers and staff from neighboring National and State Parks, Rookery Bay, The Botanical Gardens, Everglades Museum, River of Grass Greenway, the Visitors Bureau, Conservancy of SW Florida, BG Givens from District 4 Headquarters, the DEP’s Heather Shuke-Nelson who is in charge of interpretation across the entire State Park system, as well as Captain Franklin Adams, who all engaged wholeheartedly in the creative process. Jimene Rinehart did FOF proud by serving everyone an exquisite homemade lunch. So engrossed was the audience, she plated-up for most people so the flow of ideas was uninterrupted.

For part of the time we broke into syndicates ensuring each had a mix of diverse backgrounds or agencies. By the end of the day we had a wall pasted with hundreds of colorful Post-it notes scrawled with topic ideas and dozens of annotated chart sheets which Acorn took away to begin to crunch and organize into an initial interpretive summary, but not before touring other local relevant sites like Six Mile Cypress Slough, Corkscrew, Big Cypress Welcome Center and the Marsh Trail to ensure our offering will be unique. After the event Tom Maish, Chair of the Boardwalk Vision Committee, commented, “Gauging the reaction of the participants, it looks like we are finally on our way!”

Patrick Higgins is a National Association of Interpretation Certified Interpreter, Vice President of the Friends of Fakahatchee and Project Manager for the development of the Boardwalk Master Interpretive Plan.