Monday, December 19, 2005

Island Dream

Jesse Earle Bowden is a retired editor of the Pensacola News Journal. In person, he is a gentle, good man justly known as the "Father of Gulf Islands National Seashore."

Forty some years ago, Bowden courageously put the newspaper at the head of a bitter fight with powerful local politicians and monied interests who opposed setting aside Santa Rosa Island for a national park. At the time, real estate development interests had visions -- and, indeed, a very specific blueprint -- for building a honky-tonk Disneyland penned by high-rise condos and hotels all the way down the 40-mile string of sand from Fort Pickens to Destin.

In the end, a compromise was struck. Roughly half of the island was set aside to become part of the National Seashore Park. The rest became Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. You can read Bowden's fascinating reminiscence about it all in a modest paperback book titled Gulf Islands National Seashore: The Sands of Time.

To memorialize Bowden's key role in saving part of the island from the bulldozers, a few years ago an 8-mile stretch of Highway 399 that passes through GINS was renamed "J. Earle Bowden Way." It seemed an ironic tribute, since Bowden has the reputation of being a vocal critic of rapacious commercial island development and the infrastructure that supports it. "J. Earle Bowden Way" begins at the gigantic Portofino Resorts complex rising at the east end of Pensacola Beach and comes to an end at the limits to condo-covered Navarre Beach.

This past weekend, from the comfortable distance of retirement Mr. Bowden contributed another op-ed piece in his unique style that some consider poetic and others a hopeless muddle. This one is about the unresolved debate over what to do about the semi-permanently washed-out road to Fort Pickens.

Who knows what he really thinks about the issue? At a first read, and a second and a third, it's hard to tell. Even the poor soul who was assigned to give Bowden's article a title -- Debate Over Roads or Beach Nightmare? -- seems to have been mystified.

The root of the problem isn't really with Mr. Bowden's singular writing style, though. It's the Fort Pickens dilemma itself. As with larger problems posed by a heightening hurricane cycle, warming oceans, fast-disappearing petroleum reserves, and global climate change itself, there does not seem to be any good solution.

All the options are unhappy ones. Every solution contains its own nightmare.

Perhaps that's what Bowden means when he says his dream turned into a nightmare.

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