If you are discouraged by politics and don’t think you are rich enough to affect government, consider the example of Gus Muench.
Now 80-years-old, Muench never envisioned himself getting involved in politics. He grew up in Seminole Heights, where he was a “river rat.” He had a little boat he kept chained in a park on the Hillsborough River and was out on the water every chance he had. The river had good fishing though “they dumped sewage right into the river. They’d treat it with alum … it was white. … I would eat the fish and crabs out of the river and think nothing of it.”
He worked his entire career at a telephone company, but always loved being outdoors, and in his off hours ran a crabbing business, with traps throughout Tampa Bay. He built a home on the Little Manatee River, where he raised his family.
While working his crab traps, he witnessed how dredging and shoreline development harmed the estuary. He began writing letters to newspapers and become more politically involved, particularly when developers proposed a huge marina on Cockroach Bay that surely would have ruined that undeveloped stretch of Tampa Bay.
More than 30 years ago, Muench visited my office at The Tampa Tribune, where I was an editorial writer, with a terrific idea.
He thought the Indian mound at Cockroach Bay in South Hillsborough should be preserved, and Hillsborough County needed a way to fund the acquisition of such pristine sections of Tampa Bay.
In order to bring awareness to the cause, Muench was about to take a canoe trip with his sons along the near-pristine shoreline from Manatee County to Ruskin, camping along the way. Indeed I was interested in covering it. I asked him to take photographs and later wrote an editorial about his expedition and his preservation campaign.
While a strong movement to clean Tampa Bay and protect what was left of its natural coastline already was underway, Muench’s canoe trip conveyed the importance of that effort. Tribune Outdoors Writer Frank Sargeant and others also wrote about Muench’s efforts.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, one of the state’s great environmental champions, soon proposed a conservation program that became the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program or ELAPP, and Muench became one of its most energetic supporters.
ELAPP assessed property owners a small amount to raise funds to purchase ecologically valuable land. You might think that Hillsborough residents would be skeptical of another tax, but, like Muench, voters recognized the urgency of saving natural riches in the rapidly growing county.
“We took it to the public and it passed” by more than 70 percent, Muench said during a recent interview. He’s been involved with ELAPP ever since, serving on its citizens’ advisory board and continually advocating for its support.
Since ELAPP’s adoption, he’s continued to be committed to the bay’s welfare. He’s worked to prevent motor boat prop scarring in sea grass beds, is campaigning to create a conservation corridor from the Little Manatee River to the Manatee County line, and has sought to promote shoreline stabilization by establishing oyster beds. He sees sea level rise causing more erosion on the lower bay.
A “pet peeve” of his is how waterfront landowners cut mangroves and other vegetation, which he characterizes as “shoreline wildlife corridors.” He says, “We have an ego problem. People want to show off their homes and fail to realize the importance of shoreline as ‘edge habitat’ that is vital for fish, birds and other wildlife. We don’t understand it, so we cut it down and then we have erosion and loss of habitat.”
Until a recent injury, Muench continued crabbing and operated a business taking visitors to collect crabs from the traps, which he would cook when they returned to the dock. Before being treated to a delicious meal, customers learned about the importance of the bay and the demands of commercial crabbing.
He loves introducing children to the outdoors and enjoyed taking out participants in The Florida Aquarium’s youth programs on his crabbing trips before having to cut back. Muench credits his passion for the outdoors to the camping trips he made as a child and believes families similarly can instill in their children a love of the natural world by spending more time on the water and in the woods. Nature, Muench believes, offers a lifetime of wonders to those who take the time to pay attention. “You never stop learning.”
Now his focus is giving back to the bay that has provided him so much joy. “You can’t appreciate the environment if you don’t get involved,” he said. “You have to plant trees, seagrasses, do something,” such as that canoe trip that played a significant role in building momentum for conservation through land acquisition. It is notable that ELAPP bought the Indian mound in Cockroach Bay that inspired Muench’s trip. ELAPP, he said simply, “changed my life.”
And it all started with that “canoe trip.”
Muench will be the first to stress that many public officials and citizen volunteers deserve credit for this landmark environmental program that has saved more than 61,000 acres of Hillsborough wilderness.
The program is now rightly named for Jan Platt because of her relentless work to adopt and sustain ELAPP. Others providing essential leadership included planner Joel Jackson, community volunteer Jan Smith, county naturalist Rob Heath, ELAPP acquisition manager Kurt Gremley, Hillsborough Community College Dean of environmental studies Fred Webb, and environmentalist Sally Thompson. Three individuals who played key roles have since passed away: Hillsborough Parks Director Ed Radice, Environmental Protection Commission chief Roger Stewart and National Audubon bird sanctuary manager Rich Paul.