Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Florida environment needs more Roger Stewarts

In his time as a civil servant, Roger Stewart's business card may well have indicated his official position as the director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. In reality, he was actually the community's professional (and quite effective, too) pain-in-the-tuches.

At the time of his death a few days ago at 89, Stewart had been out of the public eye since his retirement as the head of the EPC 14 years ago. That is a great shame, especially today with Florida led by a governor who has never met a growth management law he didn't want to pave over.

To his 11 children, other family members and friends, Stewart's death is a personal tragedy. For Hillsborough County and the state of Florida, it is a pity — the voice of a once loud, vociferous, elbow-throwing environmental crusader has been stilled.

It was Stewart who used his EPC perch back in the 1970s as a bully pulpit to inveigh against corporate and development polluters who treated Tampa Bay as their personal septic tank.

Stewart worked tirelessly to protect wetlands, reduce toxic emissions and preserve Tampa Bay. For that Stewart quickly ran afoul of monied interests who didn't appreciate this do-gooder crusading on behalf of mangroves and fish and making a big stink about clean water and air when there was concrete to pour.

In what had to be one of the most cravenly hypocritical moves in the history of the Hillsborough County Commission (no small accomplishment), Stewart was unceremoniously sacked for insubordination in 1974, after the EPC director gave an interview to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes in which he accurately accused developers of dumping raw sewage into Tampa Bay.

Stewart's behavior rose to insubordination simply for fulfilling his duties as EPC chief. As the old song goes, "It's not that easy being green." But the euphoria on the part of Stewart's critics over his dismissal was short-lived after commissioners were informed the firing of the World War II veteran was illegal. Stewart was back on the job and back on his pedestal.

Stewart was part of a cadre of Greatest Generation figures who made a considerable difference in the lives of Tampa Bay residents. George Bean was present at the creation of Tampa International Airport. Fred Karl served the community as county administrator, head of Tampa General Hospital and a variety of other civic roles.

And then there was Roger Stewart, who was willing to speak truth on behalf of the environment.

One can only wistfully imagine the trouble a younger Roger Stewart would be raising today in the face of the gutting of environmental regulations and the cozy relationships between the administration of Gov. Rick Scott and the state's politically powerful agriculture and power company interests.

It wouldn't be pretty. Fun, yes. Pretty, no. But time cruelly ticks on. Torches get passed. Memories fade. Still, for every ardent environmentalist in Florida waging the often-tilting-at-windmills fight against the creeping loss of wetlands, clean water and clean air, remember Roger Stewart, who never ducked a battle and never wavered in his principles.

The state has something called the Great Floridians list. The Hillsborough County Commission has something called the Moral Courage Award. Neither tribute has ever recognized the contributions of Stewart.

Neither probably ever will. And an environmental stalwart like Roger Stewart would consider the blackballing by his most frequent opponents a treasured, backhanded honor.

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