News of the Strand

News from the Fakahatchee

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

Dick and Edite Hughes receive 2019 Mel Finn Award

2019 Mel Finn Award

Edite and Dick Hughes Mel Finn Award 2019Glen Stacell presented the 2019 Mel Finn award to Dick and Edite Hughes for 15 years of dedication to keeping the Boardwalk in good repair. The Park is the beneficiary of their skills and the generosity of their time through the years.

On any given day one may encounter Edite and Dick Hughes hip deep in Boardwalk repair. You too can volunteer, whether your talents are with tools or talking or behind the scenes.

Five Faces of Fakahatchee Gala

Fakahatchee gala painting

This original painting, “Boardwalk Reflection” by Paul Arsenault is being auctioned to help fund the Boardwalk Restoration Project.

The Friends of Fakahatchee, along with Paul and Eileen Arsenault will host a “Five Faces of Fakahatchee” gala Thursday, January 16 at the Arsenault Studio & Banyan Arts Gallery in Naples.

The event will honor Lavern Norris Gaynor, whose father Lester was instrumental in preserving the land for Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. The Boardwalk has been maintained by the Friends of Fakahatchee for the past 20 years.

“There is no doubt that without the generosity and foresight of the Norris family, this National Natural Landmark would have been lost forever,” said Glen Stacell, President of the Friends of Fakahatchee.

Paul Arsenault will donate 100% of the proceeds from this auction of his original 20 x 24 oil on linen “Boardwalk Reflection” to the Friends of the Fakahatchee to benefit the Fakahatchee Boardwalk Expansion Project.

“My hope is that my artwork will inspire more people to visit the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and support the Friends mission” said Paul Arsenault.

Admission to the Five Faces of the Fakahatchee gala is $150 per person and includes a service of hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer. All proceeds will benefit the Boardwalk Improvement Project. $90.00 of the ticket price qualifies as a donation.

For complete details and required reservation visit and click EVENT. For questions call 239.695.1023 or e-mail

October and November dates set for volunteer work days

The work days for groups of volunteers will be project-oriented. The October 19 work day will be a clean-up at the North end lakes. The November 16 work day will focus on improvements to the East Main trail parking area.

Each work day will begin at 8:30 AM, and volunteers are not required to work for an entire day. To register (and for details), please e-mail Park Service Specialist or call the Park Office at 239-695-4593.

January Fundraising Event features Paul Arsenault


Paul Arsenault spent time at the Fakahatchee Hilton working for the upcoming Boardwalk Fundraiser.

Well-known Naples Artist Paul Arsenault is no stranger to the Fakahatchee. He’s painted knee deep in water in the swamp, and he has offered to donate an original painting to raise funds for the FOF. On top of that, Paul will hold an event on Thursday, January 16, 2020 from 6:00 PM to 8 PM at his Banyan Arts Gallery on 3rd Street in Naples.

arsenault-kneedeep-2020We will be honoring Laverne Gaynor Norris as part of the event. Her father, Lester Norris, bought 640 acres in 1957 to prevent it from being logged. That tract of land is known to all of us as the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. This fundraising event will give us the opportunity to express our gratitude to Mrs. Gaynor and celebrate her father’s vision and generous donation of the land and Boardwalk to the State Park Service. We hope you can join us for this event to help realize the dream of the Boardwalk Expansion Project.

Mark your calendar and check back for additional details about this event.

Boardwalk Expansion Project permit issued

Collier County issued a permit dated April 10, 2019 to George F. Young Inc., the engineering firm in Gainesville retained by DEP for the Boardwalk Expansion Project. Finally this meant that the engineer had satisfied the numerous requests “for more information” from Collier County. When Boardwalk Expansion Champion Tom Maish was handed a copy of the Collier County permit letter, he was dumbfounded – he’s been promoting this project for ten years!

So what’s next? Collier County’s permit letter states “Permits from other agencies having jurisdiction over this project shall be obtained prior to start of construction” and “A pre-construction meeting is required by code prior to the start of construction.” So, more permits are required to start the project.

On April 11 we were told by DEP that the Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) is waiting on comments from the Boardwalk’s neighbors, the Miccosukee Tribe. This comment letter is required to issue a USACE permit to DEP Bureau of Design and Construction (BDC). Until this is done BDC cannot bid the project out for construction. Keep checking our website for more updates.

Festive groundbreaking ceremony kicks off Boardwalk Expansion Project

The roseate spoonbills appeared at the midpoint of the festive groundbreaking ceremony at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk the morning of December 7. Someone shouted “Spoonbills!” and everyone’s gaze shifted from the speaker’s podium to the skies above.

High in the bright blue morning sky, glowing pink from the sun behind them, a pair of roseate spoonbills glided in silent formation above the Fakahatchee. The words of the speakers at the ceremony were eloquent, but the silent presence of the birds above spoke volumes about the importance of the project far below them.

For the day, the abandoned road east of the boardwalk entrance took on a festive air complete with assisted parking, coffee, rolls, fruit, programs, display boards and shiny groundbreaking shovels ready to plunge into piles of imported earth.

Before the program, members of the Friends of Fakahatchee mingled with Fakahatchee park staff, representatives from other nature groups, tourism and local political officials and returned snowbird friends. The formal program was a testament to the coalition of state and local officials and dedicated FOF volunteers that was necessary to keep the project alive and finally get it off the ground.

One name mentioned by every speaker was Tom Maish, former FOF president and the man who championed the project for the past thirteen years.

“…a great success and thanks for all your work on this project and event. Very exciting for Fakahatchee after all these years!”

– Former President Patty Huff

FOF President Patrick Higgins welcomed attendees to “a momentous day for the Friends, the Park, the county and the state. He said the project, which includes safe parking, restrooms, a bridge across the canal and the park’s first interpretive center, “would have a significant economic impact on the county.”

Park Rangers Mike Duey, Guy DiGiovanni, and Steven Bass, Assistant Bureau Chief BJ Givens, State Senator Kathleen Passidomo, Director of Parks Eric Draper, Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, Park Manager Steve Houseknecht, Bureau Chief District 4 Valinda Subic, Park Biologist Mike Owen, Florida Division of Recreation & Parks Assistant Director Chuck Hatcher.

Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala told the group that “tourism focusing on the environment” is the wave of the future. “The enthusiasm for this project that the Friends of Fakahatchee volunteers expressed was beautiful,” she said. “I just opened the door.”
State Senator Kathleen Passidomo praised the strong partnership between the park service and the FOF. She said she was convinced of the need for improvements when she saw people trying to cross US 41 on foot from the existing parking lot on the other side of the road. When she discussed the project with the Friends, she said she was “blown away” by the plan, asking “how much do you need?”

One name mentioned by every speaker was Tom Maish, former FOF president and the man who championed the project for the past thirteen years.

Patrick Higgins, Francine Stevens, Collier Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jack Wert, Tom Maish, Visitors Bureau PR & Communications Manager JoNell Modys.

Keynote speaker Eric Draper, director of the Florida Park System, told attendees “look around at this remarkable state park. That’s the real keynote today.” After praising the contributions of Tom and Judy Maish at Corkscrew Swamp and the Fakahatchee, he told the group “we walk in the footsteps of other leaders like Mel Finn, Nathanial Reed, Franklin Adams and Jane Parks. Without their individual efforts years ago, where we are standing today could well have been another Cape Coral…Instead you are laying more footsteps— building a place where visitors will be inspired to protect land in our great state of Florida.”

Moments later, eleven dignitaries lined up and grasped their shovels. As they tossed clumps of soil into the air, cameras and cellphones captured the symbolic scene.

Ready, set, go! Chris Whipple, David Corban, Francine Stevens, Patrick Higgins, Kathleen Passidomo, Eric Draper, Donna Fiala, Tom Maish, Valinda Subic, BJ Givens, Steve Houseknecht

“Congratulations on putting together a truly memorable event… The FOF is a remarkable organization and a template for CSO’s around the state.
As pressures mount threatening our environmental integrity, the health, sustainability, and continued growth of our Park System is crucial. Eric Draper and I have been through many wars together, and I know that he was much impressed by, one, the quality of staff, and, two, the turnout of members. Again, well done.”

– Former President John Elting

Boardwalk Vision Committee Extraordinaire with Eric Draper: Francine Stevens, Tom Maish, Jimene Rinehart, Glen Stacell, Eric Draper, Patrick Higgins, Kit Kitchen-Maran, John Kaiser, Bruce Bunch.

This billboard at the site of the groundbreaking ceremony honored those who helped make the Boardwalk Expansion Project a reality.

FOF 20th anniversary luncheon celebration looks back at history and ahead to bright future

Several Past Presidents joined FOF in celebrating its 20th anniversary. Left to right: Incoming FOF President Glen Stacell, with FOF Past-Presidents Elsie Caldwell, Patrick Higgins, Patty Huff, John Elting, Francine Stevens, Tom Maish.

by Bruce Bunch

The Friends of Fakahatchee celebrated its 20th anniversary in a packed dining room at the Everglades Adventure Center in Everglades City the afternoon of December 7. There was ample time to greet old friends and make new ones before the program hosted by FOF Executive Director Francine Stevens.

Among our many honored guests who were able to attend were most of FOF’s past Presidents, along with Greg Toppin, the first Park Manager to work with the Friends. We also welcomed three of our new Permitted Tour Operators who were able to attend.

Stevens started the meeting with a standing ovation for Tom Maish in recognition of his “impressive tenacity” in spearheading the Boardwalk Expansion Project, which had its groundbreaking earlier the day. “We were sensitive about lobbying for it,” Stevens said, “but then former park director Donald Forgione told us we could educate anyone about the project and we were off to the races.” Said Maish as everyone sat down: “It was a real team effort. A lot of volunteers made this happen.”

Stevens said the Friends of Fakahatchee was incorporated in May of 1998 with Roger Dykstra as President, Park Manager Greg Toppin as Vice President, Barbara Lewinski as Secretary, Alan Caldwell as Treasurer, and Brian Donohue and Elsa Caldwell as board members. “A year later, they had $2,540 in donations,” she said. “Last year, we provided more than $70,000 in park support.”

FOF President Patrick Higgins then presented the group’s Mel Finn Award in recognition of Mrs. Jane Park’s outstanding efforts to save the Fakahatchee from real estate development “In the early 1960’s years before our organization existed,” he said, “she was working tirelessly to preserve the Fakahatchee as Chairman of the Junior Women’s Club. She organized an aggressive letter writing campaign and presented a petition to the state in support of preservation on a roll of paper 175 feet long.” Noted Stevens: “Jane does not brag, so we have to brag for her.”

Featured speaker Eric Draper, Director of Florida State Parks, praised the contributions of Mrs. Parks, Franklin Adams and his mentor former Florida Park Director Ney Landrum in saving the Fakahatchee for future generations “The Parks Department deeply appreciates the Friends organizations,” he said. “You are laying down a path for the people behind you.”

FOF Historian Franklin Adams shared his Fakahatchee memories with the group. He read from a 1964 letter from Mel Finn to Jane Parks assuring her that “we will be successful” in the efforts to preserve the Fakahatchee. He recalled how then Park Manager Greg Toppin posted a notice on a church bulletin board in 1998 that lead to the formation of the Friends of Fakahatchee. Several months later FOF volunteers were clearing exotics in the park.

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Permitted Tour Operators Dillon Griffith of Ivey House and Kyle Mc Kenzie of Adventure Paddle Tours, Pete Corradino of Everglades Day Safari, with Executive Director Francine Stevens and Incoming FOF President Glen Stacell.

New Maps for Fakahatchee Explorers

New maps provide a clearer path to exploration.


New maps of the Park’s Hiking Trails and East River Paddling Trail are now available for download.
The new maps, in conjunction with information kiosks to be installed this summer, will encourage visitors to safely explore the wonders of our park. Look for the kiosks – funded in part through the Tourist Development Council Wayfinding Project – at the Visitor Center on Janes Scenic Drive, the East River access, West Main trailhead, East Main trailhead, and the Northeast corner of the park.

These maps were produced by Georgi Goldstein, intern to our architect for the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Expansion Project, David Corban. Our thanks for this generosity!

Canadian couple sights panther

This relaxed panther was sighted near gate 7 late in February.

Editor’s note: Lee Gerig and Carole Jodouin of Ottawa, Canada provided the Friends of Fakahatchee with a photo and report of their recent panther sighting in the Fakahatchee.

“On Saturday 24 Feb 2018, my wife and I decided to walk one of the trails in the Fakahatchee.  Our initial plan was to walk from gate 12 to the “Fakahatchee Hilton” as we have done that walk before and really enjoyed it.  Just after we entered the park and paid our admission fee, we encountered a volunteer who suggested we should try walking from the gate 7 and head toward the south tram trail – hopefully we might see some orchids.  On our way, we encountered the park biologist Mike Owen and his wife who were looking at snakes.  We stopped and chatted with them for about an hour and received an impressive flora/fauna lesson from them – really an enjoyable and educational experience.

“Then off to Gate 7 for our walk.  We hiked in about 2.5 miles and turned around.  About ¼ of a mile back we spotted a panther on the trail.  Our first ever!  Luckily, we had our cameras ready and were able to get some decent photos of this beautiful animal and watch it with our binoculars.  We probably got within 300 to 400 feet and watched him/her lie down, sit, look at us, and slowly walk away into the bush.  Overall an amazing experience.  We are now committed Fakahatchee supporters and will be back again next year, but this time we plan to take the swamp walk (now that we know about it) and of course take a few walks on our own.”

20 Years of the Friends of Fakahatchee

Talk Given in Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Establishment of the to Friends of the Fakahatchee on December 7, 2018

by Franklin Adams, Everglades City, 

Good Afternoon Everyone. The Friends of Fakahatchee celebrated the dedication of the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Project this morning. The dedication was a testament to the incredibly dedicated and hard-working group of the Friends of the Fakahatchee.

We should recognize people like Tom Maish, the driving force on the new boardwalk quest, Patrick Higgins & Glen Stacell to name a few. Glen Stacell is our incoming president of the FOF and I share with you how Glen came to be a volunteer with the Friends. The Friends were seeking new board members. Knowing of Glen’s science/biology background I asked him if he would be interested in joining the FOF board. His response was, “well what would I have to do?” My response was, “you will be an unpaid volunteer and you can do as much or as little as you care to do.” All I can say is, Glen, you have made me proud. There are many others of you each contributing in your own way to the common cause.

Having Eric Draper, the Director of Florida State Parks, with us is a genuine pleasure and is greatly appreciated. Many of us in the environmental community were delighted when Eric Draper was chosen to head the Florida Park Service. His interest bodes well for the Friends as the organization continues to work to make the Fakahatchee experience available and an enjoyable and educational experience for all. We also thank State Senator Kathleen Passidomo for her vital support for Fakahatchee and look forward to continuing to work with her. Longtime Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala continues, as always, to support wise and needed environmental projects here in Collier County. Thanks again to you all for being our Friends in conservation efforts.

With us this afternoon is the lady from Naples who was instrumental in helping Mel Finn and others save the Fakahatchee, Jane Parks. Mrs. Parks was President of the Florida Federation of Junior Womens’ Clubs back when the Save the Fakahatchee fight was going on.

We are gathered here to Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of the Friends of the Fakahatchee as a Citizens Support Organization, a partnership with the State of Florida Park Service. The Florida Park Service was established in 1935 by the Florida legislature with the annual budget of $25,000. WOW! (well back then 25,000 went a lot further than it does today). Over the years the annual budget has increased considerably but many feel that the budget is still inadequately funded by the legislature. Because of this shortfall Friends groups or CSOs are critically important to the Florida State Parks system. Friends of Fakahatchee and other Friends groups pick up the slack, fill in the holes, open trails and advocate for improved educational opportunities like the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. I am talking about you folks. You make the difference by your dedicated efforts and support at all levels of the Friends of Fakahatchee.

Well how did this Friends group come about? I was not involved but this is what I have been told by a few of that small group of individuals who were there when it happened. Some are in the room with us and we owe them a debt of gratitude for coming together to help establish the Friends in 1998. I have communicated with some of those original supporters who are still with us. It is from them that I am able to share a little of the story of our Friends beginnings. Two of the dedicated original founders have passed on. But we remember Alan Caldwell and Bill Mesce for all their contributions to the Friends over the years.

It all began with Mr. Greg Toppin who was the Manager of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in 1998. We are delighted that Greg and Joann are here with us this afternoon to celebrate. It’s been awhile. Like other Florida Park Managers, Greg was short on needed staff and funding and realized that he needed a Friends group to help out. (Especially since the Fakahatchee was the largest unit in the Florida Park System). I was told by Barbara Lewinski that Greg Toppin put up a notice in the Everglades City post office asking that anyone interested in the Fakahatchee attend a meeting at the Copeland Baptist Church to discuss establishing a Friends group.

Those attending that first meeting were Alan and Elsie Caldwell, Bill and Pam Mesce, Barbara Lewinski, Cindy Hackney and Roger Dykstra (and there may have been others). The decision was made to form the Friends.

On May 4, 1998, the articles of incorporation were signed by Alan & Elsie Caldwell, Greg Toppin, Barbara Lewinski, Brian Donohue & Roger Dykstra.

On June 10, 1998 the CSO agreement was signed by Fran P. Mainella, Director of the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks who later went on to become the Director of the National Park Service. Barbara Lewinski was the new Secretary, and Roger Dykstra the first President of the Friends of Fakahatchee. Elsie Caldwell was a founder would later become president of the FOF.

The new Friends group wasted no time in getting to work. Establishing a visitors center at S.R. 29 & Alligator Alley was on the new wish list. Its day is coming but not there.

Invasive exotic plant removal began soon and continues today. Barbara recalls them doing a trailer take down of an old trailer that a ranger had resided in, removing the furniture and contents in preparation for an improved residence. What that small dedicated group began is carried forward by you all today. Raising funds for equipment, a swamp buggy, a much needed pole barn, maintaining Janes Scenic Drive, hand clearing trails and trams, educational swamp walks, moonlight tram adventures and the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk to name a few. Keep it up Friends.

Since Founders Alan Caldwell and Bill Mesce are no longer with us I want to mention their past dedicated efforts for the Fakahatchee. Alan was a microbiologist married to Elsie who was a chemist. They loved to be camping in the swamp. Alan served as chair of the By-laws and nominating committees, treasurer, vice-president and all around longtime faithful friend and glue to the Friends of Fakahatchee. The Friends honored Alan with a plaque at the gator hole at the end of the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, thanks to Jim Woodard and Howard Lubel and Steve Korney.

Bill Mesce, married to Pam, was a Viet Nam veteran. Quiet, thoughtful and totally captivated by the Fakahatchee, he delighted in sharing his love, photographs and knowledge of the swamp with others on his Swamp Walks. Doing so was therapeutic to this former Marine who served our country so well. Bill and Pam lived just outside the swamp and often shared their Copeland retreat with the Friends on special occasions. About two weeks before Bill’s passing I drove to Copeland and picked him up at his Mother’s home. We just drove Scenic Drive down to one of Bill’s favorite areas , West Slough. Bill knew that his time was near and he could not walk much, so we just sat in my truck and talked about the good times in the swamp. The Friends have honored Bill Mesce with a memorial picnic area on a swamp tram. A place to sit and contemplate the peace and serenity that Bill Mesce valued so dearly. Thanks again to Howard Lubel and Jim Woodard for bringing it about.

In closing we remember nature photographer and Fakahatchee Friend Saul Friess who left us recently.

We also remember Nathaniel Nat Reed who left us back in July at the age of 84 while fishing. Some of you will remember that Nat came over and spent the day and evening with us in December 2011. Nat paved the way at the Florida State level for the acquisition finally of what became the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Nat made Mel Finn’s long pursued dream to save the Fakahatchee a reality. As we know, sometimes a lone individual can make a significant difference and Mel Finn and Nat Reed did. We owe him our gratitude and honor his memory. Tomorrow morning Kathy and I will travel to Jupiter Island to attend Nathaniel’s Memorial service with his family and friends.

And now finally, I would like the original Founders to stand proudly and receive our grateful thanks for their efforts 20 years ago in founding the Friends of the Fakahatchee . THANK EACH OF YOU!

Thanks to each of you, and now let us visit, ask questions of the Founders and keep up the good work and enjoy our time together.