Jim Austin is a photographer, educator, artist, sailor and naturalist. He has lived aboard the sailing catamaran Salty Paws for the past two decades.

Enchanted. Stephanie Courtney loves her work as a master naturalist. When she guided us on an educational tour in the environmental center in Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park, her stories enchanted me. I fell in love with the area as she taught me to see and love its biodiversity. In this special place, she shared her gift for illuminating the webs of life that surrounded us.

Experience. She first asked us what we wanted from the tour and our group wanted to learn about native plants, so she began with a story about the cycad plant a few feet from us. A vital native plant, it’s been on earth since before the dinosaurs, and it contains a neuro-toxin. A special butterfly, the cycad blue, drinks the cycad necter and absorbs this toxin, which helps it avoid bird predation. The butterfly signals its toxicity with a metallic blue sheen on its wings. Cycad plants are vital for the ecosystem, sharing nitrogen and carbon through the soil, and creating bio-diverse habitats. As cycads are in decline, our master naturalist guide emphasized how vital it was to protect natural areas from development and, along the way, understand nature’s interwoven connections like mycelial networks. Her detailed stories let us engage with her, asking questions as we strolled the saw palmetto-lined path.

Engagement. Pausing to ask us questions, she made us think about the biodiversity of our surroundings. She skillfully weaved stories of plants, butterflies, bird migration and many other tales as we went. Every few yards, she told another anecdote full of facts about native plants, ferns, flowers and the birds we were hearing. She touched on the history of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (CHEC) and the mission of its co-founder, Mr. Charles Caniff.

Energy. Stephanie’s energy and enthusiasm warmed my heart. She has been a master naturalist for over four years with the CHEC, one of Florida’s State Parks. The center’s programs have included guided walks, and a Seagrass Wading Trip that involved 366 fourth graders, 390 second graders, and 336 participants. This park is located in Western Florida off the Peace River near Punta Gorda. Find more information its website at and then visit so you can fall in love with this beautiful place too.


So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Capitol Reef National Park mentioned above was supported with funds from LWCF. This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act last year. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.

Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at brooksm@nwf.org for guidelines. You’ll get this cool sticker as a thank you.



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