Retiree is Mother Nature's industrious protector

Jim Igler, 68, who recently received a national award from Keep America Beautiful, builds oyster domes to line the MacDill shore.
Jim Igler, 68, who recently received a national award from Keep America Beautiful, builds oyster domes to line the MacDill shore.
Published March 8, 2013

Jim Igler's life motto has always been "lead by example."

So it comes as no surprise that on a warm Friday last month near Fort De Soto Park, Igler toiled over a concrete mixer as he built oyster domes that will line the shore near MacDill Air Force Base.

Igler and about 15 other volunteers, some students and some retirees, tirelessly bent down and packed the concrete into the domes, which need to harden before they are shipped to MacDill. The restoration project, a partnership with the Department of Defense and Tampa Bay Watch, is aimed at creating a natural shoreline that spawns sea life through the domed eco communities and protects Tampa's water quality.

Oysters are especially good filters of pollution.

Igler, 68, who has lived in Ruskin since 1987, hails from upstate New York via Kansas, where he worked for many years in the trucking industry after college. Now he spends his days volunteering practically every weekday and weekend for more than 10 local environmental organizations committed to cleaning the Tampa Bay estuary, replenishing its natural habitat and reducing shoreline erosion.

Igler takes personal pride in the fact that Tampa Bay is one of the only estuaries in the nation to show signs of improvement in the last decade.

"What I get from this personally is the satisfaction of knowing what I do makes a difference," Igler said. "I'm also encouraging people by my actions to give back."

Because of his tireless volunteerism, Keep America Beautiul presented Igler with the 2013 Iron Eyes Cody Award at the organization's 60th national conference held in Washington. (Actor Iron Eyes Cody was the iconic Indian symbol of 1970s public service announcements, whose single tear was shed over disregard for the environment, awakening a generation of Americans to become better stewards of their surroundings.) The award was established to recognize outstanding men like Igler, who commit so much of their time, talent and energy to improving the environment.

Igler was nominated for the national award by Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, where he has volunteered since 1993 and serves on its board of directors. He also serves on the board of the Egmont Key Alliance and the Citizen Advisory Council for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, leads the Florida Aquarium's Green Team and volunteers for Tampa Bay Watch, Ocean Conservancy, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, St. Petersburg Audubon and many more.

Igler, pausing from building the domes to sit by an inlet of the gulf and reflect, said he was humbled and honored to win the Iron Eyes Cody Award.

"I knew who Cody was and what the award means as a steward of the environment," Igler said. "I'm going to use this award to advocate and encourage people to give back and volunteer. I get paid not by money but by the great, like-minded people I get to work with every day who do good things around the bay."

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Joe Gross, a fellow Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful board member and Temple Terrace's code enforcer, has spent many hours by Igler's side, volunteering to clean and preserve Tampa Bay and its ecosystem. A native of Tampa, Gross has painfully witnessed the bay's five-decade decline but remains hopeful for its future.

"Undoing the damage is not merely identifying the source of pollution and passively awaiting its recovery," Gross said. "It requires aggressive mitigation and thoughtful approaches. Whether it's removing monofilament waste that risks entanglement of water birds and sea creatures, planting sea grass, or building oyster domes to re-create lost reefs, Jim spends nearly every day pursuing all these to resurrect what was once taken for granted."

What fuels Igler's drive, Gross says, is a mystery, other than his commitment to restore and leave his environment better than how he found it.

"Jim's motivation isn't for accolades or credit, but from a beautiful, selfless intent," Gross said. "What makes his recognition so rewarding is he really deserves it, and yet he is humbled by the experience."

Bob Harris, a retired St. Petersburg native who won Volunteer of the Year from Tampa Bay Watch, often works closely with Igler building the oyster domes for the MacDill project.

"Jim is at every event I've ever been to," Harris said. "He's amazing. He knows every little aspect of these projects, and he does it all."

Igler says he's encouraged particularly by the young people he meets and the mind-set they have to help keep the environment clean. As a certified diver who leads the Florida Aquarium team in restoring local coral reefs, researching local shipwrecks, and maintaining the aquarium's shark tanks, Igler is often moved by the children who visit the aquarium and have the pleasure of seeing him diving.

"The look of awe on their faces is so encouraging," Igler said. "Kids are usually ahead of the curve. They want to learn what's going on. When I'm out volunteering and cleaning near the fishing piers, I see the children on the beach, and I hear them telling their parents where to throw things out.

"That's very poignant to me."

Igler has a landlubber side to him as well, which Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful has nurtured. He has inspired the organization to help local events become litter free. One is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, which attracts more than 2 million spectators to Tampa each year. Igler is on a 2013 committee to oversee parade improvements, and he is interested in concluding next year's parade with an "Eco Float," where beads that often litter the streets can be recycled rather than thrown away by paradegoers who don't want them and leave them lying around.

As for the end of this bright and sunny morning near the gulf, as Igler finishes molding and packing the domes and placing them in rows to dry, he is happy to be working outdoors, in synch with the sea.

"Mother Nature is in charge, and I respect that," Igler said. "She knows what she's doing. We've got to work with her and not against her. Mankind doesn't have it figured out yet."