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Trying to keep a Florida where the wild things are

Florida is always in some kind of peril. There are hurricanes and floods, fires and predators, especially that two-legged species who likes to dredge and drain, level and clear.

Luckily, not all homo sapiens are hellbent on building strip malls and gated communities; luckily, Florida fosters people who know that profits should not always trump beauty. Luckily there's the Florida Wildlife Federation. Founded in 1937 when it was becoming clear that runaway growth was destroying our landscape, FWF still fights like a mama panther to protect this state.

Full disclosure, y'all: I joined the Florida Wildlife Federation's board of directors in 2010. I'm not a hook-and-bullet type: I haven't been fishing since my disastrous failure to land even one puny grouper on a gulf excursion in 1994. Many in the federation do hunt — I like to call them "Greens with guns."

The important thing is that though I've been writing about the degradation of Florida's waters, and our flora and fauna, for 25 years, I've never seen an organization as nimble, smart and effective as FWF. They're nonpartisan (believe it or not, Republicans were once the good environmentalists and Democrats the rapacious developers), doing their damnedest to educate governors, federal officials, state regulators, legislators and the rest of us about Florida's complex, fragile and irreplaceable ecosystems. In a state where the developer is practically king, FWF's successes are nothing short of astonishing.

The federation advocated purchase of conservation lands long before Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever — both of which FWF helped pass. In 1941, FWF got 60,000 acres in Charlotte County protected; in 1947, when Harry Truman (an FWF member, by the way) was in the White House, the federation shepherded the purchase of what would become Palm Beach County's Corbett Wildlife Area. They warned of the dangers of drilling for oil off Florida's coasts, insisted on legal protection for sovereign submerged lands (which we, the people, own), and were way out front on Everglades restoration.

In 1968, Johnny Jones, the federation's then-president, joined with Nathaniel Reed, Gov. Claude Kirk's environmental adviser, to put the kibosh on one of the most spectacularly stupid ideas in Florida history (and that's saying something): the Everglades Jetport. It was to be the world's largest airport, right there in the River of Grass. FWF, Reed, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others objected, spurring even President Richard Nixon to reject it. Now, instead of asphalt from Miami to Marco Island, we have the Big Cypress National Preserve, 700,000 acres of habitat for panthers, sand hill cranes and other endangered critters who live among the orchids and the mangroves.

The federation helped stop the feds when they perversely wanted to run a paved road across the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest, got the Kissimmee River Restoration Act through Congress in 1976 — reversing a disastrous Corps of Engineers "channelizing" project, which dumped millions of gallons of dirty water into Lake Okeechobee and decimated the local bird population — and worked with Gov. Bob Graham on the "Save Our Everglades" initiative in the 1980s.

FWF was antipollution before being antipollution was cool. In 1960 the St. Petersburg Times said, "The Florida Wildlife Federation points out that the explosive growth of our cities has created a serious sewage disposal problem, while Florida's flat terrain and slow water runoff offers a special threat to health through pollution."

Sound familiar? An environmentalist's work is never done. In 2012, Florida faces many of the same problems we've had since Plant and Flagler ran their railroads south. Water, for one. FWF was the lead plaintiff in a 2007 lawsuit over the pumping of agricultural waste water into Lake Okeechobee. A federal judge ruled in FWF's favor, impelling the state of Florida to cut an historic deal with U.S. Sugar to buy their Everglades land. In 2009, FWF and other conservation outfits won a consent decree against the EPA, mandating that numeric standards be used to determine if a river or a lake is impaired by fertilizer runoff. Before, we just sort of guessed at it.

Cleaning up Florida is like whack-a-mole (not that we'd ever do violence to a non-game animal): you smack one atrocity down and 10 more pop up. FWF is still battling the polluters — Associated Industries, the Chamber of Commerce, and Big Ag, as well as their enablers in state government — over whether our waters and beaches will be poisoned with slime from algae, found now on the Caloosahatchee, Santa Fe and St. Johns rivers, in lakes all over, and in the gulf from Naples to Clearwater. This stuff is toxic: to your skin, to your lungs, your kids, your dog and to Florida's multibillion dollar tourist industry.

Yet FWF will never give up: We've got 100,000 grass-roots supporters, an indefatigable president and staff, plus some mean workaholic lawyers. So the next time you see a manatee floating in a spring or watch a deer canter through the woods or gaze at the turquoise waves of the Gulf of Mexico, raise a glass — figuratively or, even better, literally — to the Florida Wildlife Federation on our 75th anniversary, working to save the natural heritage of the Land of Flowers.

Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, a historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University.

Trying to keep a Florida where the wild things are 06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 4:30am]
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