Fair   62.0F  |  Forecast »

Learning to Love the Great Outdoors

Ecotourism has become big business in Indian River County. From airboating to skydiving, there’s something for everyone – except mountaineers

A pileated woodpecker – the largest of all woodpeckers in North America –  likes to chip out holes in trees while searching for insects to eat.

A pileated woodpecker – the largest of all woodpeckers in North America –  likes to chip out holes in trees while searching for insects to eat.

Heightened ecological awareness among people born since the post-World War II baby boom has helped turn ecotourism into a fast-growing niche market in Indian River County. Residents and tourists alike have an abundance of outdoorsy activities to choose from that combine fun with sensitivity to the area’s unique and fragile ecosystems. Natural habitats represented within the county range from mangrove swamps, where American alligators roam alongside roseate spoonbills, to pine flatwoods, where endangered Florida scrub jays sing and gopher tortoises burrow.

The county, home to two flora- and fauna-rich state parks, is also on the established air route of migratory birds. Indian River County is further privileged to border the Indian River Lagoon, North America’s most biologically diverse estuary, and house the headwaters of the St. Johns River, one of only 14 American Heritage rivers in the U.S.

Word of the area’s many environmental and ecological attributes is already well-established within the state, aiding its rising prominence as an ecotourism destination, says Susan Hunt, director of tourism for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. Last year, Florida Monthly magazine awarded the county an unprecedented 27 “Best of Awards” for everything from its hiking to its surfing amenities. In addition, Florida Travel & Lifestyles magazine named the stretch of shoreline from the Sebastian Inlet to Vero Beach the state’s second best.

Based on the volume of foot traffic, the single most popular eco-destinations locally are Sebastian Inlet State Park, Florida’s second busiest park with 781,000 day visitors and campers annually. At a distant but respectable second is the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, with nearly 90,000 annual visitors, and the adjacent Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, with at least 30,000 visitors each year. Yet this trio represents only a fraction of the ecotourism opportunities available to residents year-round.

Read the entire article in the January 2012 issue