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Glades advocate dies in crash

George Barley had given his money, time and energy to saving the Everglades. Friday he gave it his life.

Barley, 61, was the only passenger in a small twin-engine plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Orlando Executive Airport at 9:13 a.m. The pilot, 32-year-old Mark Swade, also was killed.

A native Floridian who graduated from Harvard, Barley had spent the past several years fighting full time for an Everglades cleanup plan that would be financed by the sugar industry. He was the driving force behind the Save Our Everglades petition drive that collected 600,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment.

The amendment would have tacked a penny a pound on raw sugar to raise $875-million to clean up the Everglades. It was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court in May 1994 after a legal challenge by the sugar industry.

Former state Sen. Curt Kiser heard about the death of his close friend about 2 p.m. Friday in a call from Sen. Toni Jennings of Orlando. After missing a commercial flight, Barley had chartered a flight to Jacksonville to attend a Corps of Engineers meeting on Everglades restoration.

The Beechcraft 58 took off in foggy weather and an engine failed shortly after takeoff. The plane crashed near the busy intersection of State Roads 436 and 50, just outside the eastern city limits. No one on the ground was hurt.

"It's a terrible loss," said a sobbing Joe Browder, Barley's close friend and a fellow environmentalist. "There are many people who care about the Everglades . . . but we're as organized and capable as we are because George was pushing us and pulling us."

Kiser and his wife, Sally, had become close friends with Barley and his wife, Mary, the former senator said. Kiser was introduced to Barley by Sandy Safley, then a member of the Marine Fisheries Commission, which Barley led.

"George was the first chairman of the Marine Fisheries Commission," Kiser said, recalling that he supported controversial limits on snook and redfish. "He started doing battle with the commercial fishermen right off the bat."

The Everglades fight pitted Barley against an even more powerful opponent. The sugar industry used all its considerable wealth, political connections and legal expertise to fight Barley and his Save Our Everglades movement.

Barley's opinion was as unwavering as his commitment to the cause.

"The Everglades are dying," he said in 1994. "Florida Bay is in critical condition. Coral reefs in the Keys are threatened. The reason is the greed of the big sugar producers in South Florida."

He didn't give up after the court scrapped the amendment. He had been active in a fledgling campaign in Congress to eliminate the federal subsidy that keeps the sugarcane industry in the Everglades competitive with foreign sugar producers.

"He was up here last week and had a meeting with the congressman for about 45 minutes," said Christopher Kinnan, an aide to U.S. Rep. Dan Miller, a Bradenton Republican leading an effort called "End Welfare for Big Sugar."

People wondered about the credentials of a developer leading an environmental movement. Barley always responded that as a developer, he had to make sure runoff from his land was clean. Why didn't Big Sugar?

"He could not figure out why the sugar people were not required to clean up the water before it went into the Everglades," Kiser said.

Scientists say phosphorous-polluted runoff from the vast sugar fields is choking the life from the Everglades and Florida Bay further south. Barley, who owned a vacation home on Islamorada in the Keys, began to notice the decline of the bay waters years ago.

First, his favorite fishing holes dried up. Seagrasses looked sickly. By 1987, commercial fishermen charted a massive algae bloom they called the Dead Zone west of Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1991 came another seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, claiming 35,000 acres.

"We knew something really bad was going on in Florida Bay," Barley said in a March 1994 interview. "People kept saying "we've got to figure out a way to bypass government to go to the people.' The government is going to give in to the sugar industry over and over."

Barley was working recently with Kiser and former House Speaker Jon Mills of Gainesville to craft a new amendment that would meet the court's approval. Those who knew him best said it was his love of hunting and fishing, and most of all his love of Florida, that kept him fighting.

Information from the Associated Press and Times files were used in this report.