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In Tribute to Ellen Peterson

Southwest Florida’s Environmental Activist and Voice

Ellen Peterson with
her Conservationist
of the Year 2008
award, received from
The Florida Wildlife

Ellen Peterson with her Conservationist of the Year 2008 award, received from The Florida Wildlife Federation.

Ellen Peterson, founder of the Happehatchee Center, an eco-spirituality center in Estero, was an environmental warrior who fought fiercely for the protection of Southwest Florida’s natural resources and wildlife. She took on big developers that were eager to turn unspoiled land into profit, rallied against polluters of waterways and stood up to powerful politicians when few others dared.

Peterson, 87, won and lost many of these battles. She died peacefully on October 14 at her Happehatchee home, where friends and family had camped out in recent weeks to offer support and tell stories of her life. “Ellen was suffering from brain cancer and a lesion on her lungs,” says Mary Murray, a close friend.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Peterson earned degrees in physical education and chemistry, taught in the Midwest and played professional softball. After earning a master’s degree in counseling, she served as director of the Counseling Center at Edison Community College, now Edison State College.

Since 1972, Peterson lived near the Estero River, where she was equally comfortable designing and building her own stilt home, fixing a broken generator or digging out a pond, all the while wrangling with government agencies, policy makers and developers.

Peterson served on several boards and advisory committees, including the Agency on Bay Management, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Save Our Creeks, the Responsible Growth Management Coalition, the Everglades Committee, the Environmental and Peace Education Center and the Calusa Group of the Sierra Club. She founded the Calusa Group more than 30 years ago and remained chairperson until her death.

Peterson was opposed to major projects such as the development of the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch. “Ellen helped raise environmental concerns regarding the construction of Florida Gulf Coast University, where substantial plant and wildlife mitigation took place before the university was built,” says Nancy Payton, local spokeswoman for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Peterson’s ashes will be spread over Fisheating Creek, which she fought diligently to preserve. A celebration of her life will be held for friends and colleagues at 3 p.m., December 3, at the Happehatchee Center, which will continue to offer classes and events.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Happehatchee Center, P.O. Box 345, Estero, Florida 33929-0345 or Save Our Creeks, P.O. Box 135, Palmdale, Florida 33944.

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