March 11, 2017
Groups in water wars battle for hearts and minds of voters
By Chad Gillis and Alexandra Glorioso
Buy the sugar land. Send water south. Vote Yes on Amendment 1. #gladeslivesmatters. Bullsugar.
South Florida these days is a world of bumper-sticker slogans and big-money politics — a place where well-planned messages can cost millions of dollars and steer history’s largest environmental restoration.
The phrases, forums and protests can sway Florida voters, influence state lawmakers, control where taxpayer money goes and even help change the state’s constitution.
There is a lot at stake: clean water, thousands of jobs, billions in state money, millions in tourist spending and the future of imperiled species.
With the legislative session underway, lawmakers are considering Senate President Joe Negron’s top priority — a state plan to borrow for Florida’s share of a $2.4 billion proposal to buy 60,000 acres for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
But Negron’s plan faces tough odds. U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, a freshman Republican from Naples who could be an influential advocate for federal help with the reservoir, said he doesn’t believe the political will exists now to pass Negron’s plan. Florida residents and politicians have been pushing Congress to catch up with the federal government's share of Everglades restoration costs.
As the state Legislature and Congress get busy, the messages have become more frequent and reactionary as one side pits ideas and strategies against the other.
The various sides are well funded, experienced and battle-hardened. Each sells a version of the truth. Their messages are often coordinated and planned for the most impact.
Their battlefields are billboards, government meetings, mail fliers, social media platforms and email blasts. Protesters have demonstrated for clean water on both coasts.
And two groups have been particularly active in the battle in recent months: The Everglades Foundation and the Florida Sugarcane Farmers, a growers trade group.
The Everglades Foundation has been pushing the state to buy about 60,000 acres of farm land south of Lake Okeechobee for a water storage reservoir that would be part of the larger Everglades restoration. It's an idea Negron has supported after large water releases from the lake last year fouled the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries.
This is the “Send Water South” campaign, which kicked into high gear after El Nino rains soaked most of the state in January of 2016.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist made a deal with U.S. Sugar in 2008 that basically said the state was ready to buy all of U.S. Sugar’s land and holdings in the Clewiston area for $1.75 billion.
The state purchased more than 27,000 acres for $197 million — and there’s still a deal that would allow the state to buy all of the corporation’s land and assets by 2020. But U.S. Sugar says it’s no longer a willing seller.
Gov. Rick Scott arrived in Tallahassee in 2010, and he has since appointed all of the South Florida Water Management District governing board. Scott has shown no interest in following Crist’s lead to buy the land, and neither has his water district board.
The conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee released a report called “$ticker $hock” in February that said buying farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and put thousands of people out of a job.
Four days later, the Everglades Foundation — the creation of billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones and the late Orlando-area developer George Barley — countered with a Clemson University study that says building a reservoir would create 39,000 jobs and increase property values in Florida by billions of dollars.
Florida Sugarcane Farmers posted on various Facebook accounts that the James Madison Institute, not the Everglades Foundation and the Clemson study, was right.
The Everglades Foundation also helped fund a Florida Realtors Association report in 2015 that estimated better water quality would increase property values by nearly $1 billion in Lee and Martin counties — areas on the west and east coasts that receive Lake Okeechobee toxic water releases.
The groups battle on Facebook, with tit-for-tat responses that basically say the other is wrong.
Eric Eikenberg, Crist’s former chief of staff and now Everglades Foundation CEO, joined the foundation in 2012, after serving as Crist’s campaign manager during his failed 2010 U.S. Senate run.
Critics of the foundation say Eikenberg and Jones, the billionaire, influence many environmental groups that depend on the foundation for funding.
Eikenberg said the Everglades Foundation distributes about $1 million annually to 16 organizations, and that decisions about which groups are funded are made by a board of 28 people, not one billionaire founder.
Those organizations are based mainly in Florida but some are in Washington, D.C
“The other side or opponents of the Everglades Foundation can make these types of weird and crazy accusations or alternative realities, but the fact of the matter is we are in this to see an ecosystem saved,” Eikenberg said. “We’re not out to put anybody out of business.”
The foundation is battling U.S. Sugar, the Florida Sugarcane Farmers, Florida Chamber of Commerce and groups like the James Madison Institute, which advocates private property rights and less government regulation.
Before the foundation hands out money to other groups like the Florida chapters of Audubon and the Sierra Club, they must agree to participate in weekly call-ins to coordinate efforts. Audubon and Sierra Club received $418,000 and $100,000, respectively, from the foundation in 2014.
"From our perspective,” Eikenberg said, "it’s bringing people together with a common shared goal and tapping into the expertise that they may have — and it’s worked effectively.”
U.S. Sugar executive Judy Sanchez said the groups are hell bent on putting sugar farmers out of business.
"That’s what every single group that gets funding from the Everglades Foundation is basing all of their support for a Southern reservoir on. The science has been debunked by the South Florida Water Management District," Sanchez said. "That’s a big difference between what the Everglades Foundation does and what we do (lobby in Tallahassee) because they’re seeking to irritate, to sensationalize and then they litigate."
But, Eikenberg, the Everglades Foundation’s CEO, said the message isn’t quite as synchronized as he would hope.
“The fact that people think this is some kind of a puppet mastery, it is herding cats. You’ve got to keep people focused because there are a lot of competing interests,” Eikenberg said. “We’re trying to speak in one voice.”
An unlikely message has made its way into the debate over the proposed Everglades reservoir: the plan advocated by Negron and environmentalists hurts a “proud African-American community.”
The group trumpeting the message calls itself Glades Lives Matter, a title clearly intended to evoke the passions stirred by the national group drawing attention to black people killed by police.
Echoing talking points from the sugar industry, Glades Lives Matter says the 60,000-acre reservoir will be built on too much farmland and therefore take away jobs in the struggling agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee. The argument has hit home with the state legislative black caucus, whose members have been lobbied by Glades Lives Matter, a nonprofit founded by a trio of black politicos.
In various op-eds, Glades Lives Matter has dwelled on race and class issues between the environmentalists and Glades residents.
“Why Are Black South Floridians Not Part Of Discussions For Plan To Buy Their Land?” former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, D-Clewiston, wrote in the Huffington Post this past September.
“This plan in the name of Everglades restoration was announced in 2016, not 1916,” Taylor wrote. “Sadly, it’s a plan designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of another proud African-American community.”
Taylor is a director of the group along with Anna Littles of Clewiston and Katia Saint Fleur of Miami, according to state records.
The Everglades Foundation bristled at Taylor’s accusations and said she’s not willing to work with them.
“She’s reverting to stoking fears. She’s willing to be divisive and it’s actually sad. In this day and age for an elected official to write that kind of thing is just sad,” Eikenberg said.
The great irony of Taylor’s argument, Eikenberg argues, is that the giant reservoir benefits everyone in South Florida.
But Glades Lives Matter is hoping to persuade some Democrats to join a growing number of Republicans lining up against Negron’s plan this year for the reservoir. His fellow Republicans who control the House, hold a majority in the state's congressional delegation and in the governor's mansion, all oppose building the reservoir.
Glades Lives Matter, formed last year, is targeting the black caucus. Of the 15 Democrats in the Senate, where they tend to have more influence, seven are black.
Last month, Glades Lives Matter began stepping up the pressure to defeat the reservoir by giving tours of the Glades farming area and drawing attention to all of the needs in the poor, minority farming community.
The group then invited residents to tell their stories to the caucus during a regular Tuesday night meeting in Tallahassee on Feb. 21.
Members were “flabbergasted” at the economic situation in the Glades, said state Sen. Perry Thurston, the black caucus’ chairman from Pompano Beach who couldn’t believe the lack of good jobs, roads and schools.
He said the community is so dependent on farming that it can’t afford to lose farmland – even if it’s to build a reservoir designed to protect the ecosystem.
“I think that this community is probably the least of areas that can afford the loss of jobs and impact this (proposal) would have on them,” Thurston said. “I think that we need a holistic approach, rather, where everyone has skin in the game.”
Though Glades Lives Matter’s message sounds as if it were lifted directly from Big Sugar’s playbook, the group wouldn’t say whether it was funded by the industry and didn’t respond to requests for a list of donors.
U.S. Sugar is one of the major power brokers and employers in Taylor’s home city of Clewiston and featured one of Taylor’s op-eds on its website.
Like other industries that have financed local groups to spread their messages in communities they are trying to connect with, U.S. Sugar acknowledged it has funded several organizations over the years — such as Ladies of the Lake and Florida Sugarcane Farmers — to promote its message against buying more sugar land to restore the Everglades.
While she wouldn’t comment directly on Glades Lives Matter, a spokeswoman did say U.S. Sugar has a major voice in the business community that can back similar kinds of community organizations.
“We’re a member of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce because we’ve been a member of that since they’ve had a chamber. And they’re very active in these issues,” Sanchez said.
In addition to promoting different groups, U.S. Sugar said it ran seven ads in 2016 and one so far in 2017 in full-page Sunday editions in the The News-Press and Treasure Coast newspapers where communities were most impacted by the toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee. The ads cost about $39,200 through Feb. 28, U.S. Sugar said.
Sanchez said they were a response to improper information being spread in the news coverage as well as community meetings hosted by local environmental groups like the Sierra Club, “basically saying that U.S. Sugar alone was responsible for an environmental catastrophe.”
The Everglades Foundation said it hadn’t funded any ads in local papers but did acknowledge they’d funded a full page ad in The New York Times, which was first reported by the Miami Herald in March 2016.
In the high-stakes public relations battle, Sanchez said, environmentalists were “taking a page out of our book” by funding research and community groups to spread their message.
Many politicians support farmers and landowners and tend to support the water district and the sugar companies, who say that instead of trying to buy more land south of Lake O, the state and federal government should concentrate on funding and building out projects already on the drawing board, including the C-43 reservoir near the Hendry-Lee county line and storage efforts north of the lake.
“Environmental organizations exist solely to advocate for what they value in environmental policy,” said. Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who is philosophically aligned with the sugar industry on Everglades issues. “The farmers have a much wider scope for what they pay attention to, which is more than just environmental stewardship but all the business issues that affect their employees.”
A new type of organization sprung up over the past year, after the heavy El Nino rains turned coastal waters black.
Armed with a vast social media network, major corporate sponsorships and youthful leadership, Captains for Clean Water has grown from a group of frustrated fishing captains to hundreds of fee-paying members in less than a year.
Captains for Clean Water, a Fort Myers-based non-profit that received $25,000 from the Everglades Foundation last year, formed in May 2016, after the heavy, unseasonal rains washed chocolate, even black-colored waters across the east and west coasts.
But what the group lacks in history and experience is offset by corporate sponsorships that help them spread their message to millions of people across the country.
"We’ve made massive sacrifices that have changed the way we’ve lived our lives so we could try to make a difference in our communities and we haven’t received a dime of personal compensation for it," said Daniel Andrews, a Fort Myers area fishing guide and one of the group's most outspoken members.
Companies like Yeti coolers, Costa Del Mar, Mustad, SeaDek and others have donated prizes and gifts for raffle sales and backed the group with high-end video gear to capture the water impacts and even free flights from local pilots.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff, articles put out that we’re controlled by the Everglades Foundation and it’s hurtful,” Andrews said. “They’re trying to suppress the voices of fishing guides by saying we’re controlled by some billionaire that I don’t know.”