News-Press

February 9, 2017

 

Environmentalist, former Sanibel mayor Bird Westall dies

By AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS

 

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2017/02/09/environmentalist-former-sanibel-mayor-bird-westall-dies/97690028/

 

Bird Westall, former Sanibel mayor and longtime champion of Southwest Florida's wild places and creatures has died at 64.

"One of Sanibel's strongest environmental voices has left us," said Kevin Ruane, the island's current mayor, in a statement. "We all owe Mayor Westall a great debt of gratitude for the legacy of environmental stewardship and the legacy of habitat protection he left us."

The Indiana-born Westall's first name was actually Mark, but everyone called him Bird, and the nickname suited him in more ways than one.

Not only was he long and gangly as a heron (and just as at-home in a mangrove tunnel) Westall was a passionate student of and advocate for feathered creatures.

"He spoke the osprey language," said writer and felllow Sanibel resident Wayne Corbett.

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Westall founded the nonprofit International Osprey Foundation and served on Lee County's Bald Eagle Technical Advisory Committee for more than a decade.

Service was one of his core values, leading to three years on Sanibel's planning commission, eight on its city council, two terms as vice-mayor and one term as mayor, ending in 1993.

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Major legislative accomplishments during his tenure include the establishment of the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Conservation District, improving mangrove and wildlife habitat protection and the establishment of the Police Pension Fund for Sanibelís officers, Ruane said.

Westall made his living guiding canoe trips through Sanibel's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge as well as the island's inland waterways, showing his guests the native plants and animals he loved.

University of Florida's Curator of South Florida Archaeology and Ethnography Bill Marquardt, and Director of the Randell Research Center, a research and education facility located in Pineland, remembers his Westall-led first tour of Buck Key near Captiva.

"Bird had the biggest canoe I had ever seen, and he guided people through the mosquito control ditches of Buck Key," .recalls Marquardt, who also directs Pineland's Randell Research Center. "We later did some archaeology there. Bird was passionate about the environment and I learned a lot from him."

He'd been leading such trips since 1978, he wrote on his website, after coming to Sanibel "in search of Utopia," he wrote. "Of course, Utopia doesn't exist, but Sanibel comes close."

It was a year after Westall had left Indiana University, where he studied anthropology and environmental studies in pursuit of answers he'd sought since middle school, as he explained in a blog post:

"Ever since I was a young teenager, I have been trying to understand why 'civilized' humans can be such jerks to everything else around them sometimes. I couldnít understand why a supposedly 'advanced' class of our species always seemed to be destroying everything they came in contact with instead of living in harmony with the surrounding environment ... When I first started this lifelong search for answers, I was focusing on the human aspect of the equation and began working on an Anthropology degree in college. My plan was to go and work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, live on a reservation, marry an Indian princess, and learn firsthand how the natives did it. Ahhh, the naivetť of youth!"

Westall could be prickly and bull-headed in service to his ideals, traits that sometimes cost him dearly. In his blog, he mused about natural systems and humans alike, and his frustrations with the latter, as he confessed in another post.

"For over 30 years I have worked to help the people of Sanibel to try to co-exist with the islandís natural environment. And I believe that I have achieved a little success in that area, but I also feel that my success has not come without some major sacrifices. Iíll admit that as young naturalist many years ago, I was naive in believing that all I had to do was talk logically to people about how they could co-exist with the natural world and, as a result, peace and harmony would be realized ... What was driving me crazy on Sanibel was I was constantly having to face off with those who claimed to have environmental desires, but they were not so sure they wanted the environment in their backyard. As a professional naturalist and when I sat on the City Council of Sanibel, many times I found myself having to be incredibly stubborn and unyielding with those who pretended to be environmentalists' ... Finally, my frustrations resulted in a divorce and that forced me to reassess my passion for saving the environment."

Yet in the end, Westall returned again and again to that passion, sharing it one canoe-load at a time. It was more than his life's work: It was, as he wrote, his religion. "My Mother used to give me grief all the time because she said I didnít go to church enough. And my reply to her was, 'Mom, I go to church every day! It just doesnít have a roof over it like yours does.' No matter what beliefs you adhere to, I hope you ... join me in praying that our species will eventually, someday, respect all the wondrous things that are in the universe; both natural and human."

Details on a memorial service have not yet been announced.