My father, George Barley, never ceased to amaze me with his passion for nature and wildlife. It was evident from my first memories when we lived on the pristine shores of Playalinda Beach in the late 1950s, which is now the Cape Canaveral National Seashore where the rocket launch pads sit.
He took my mother Shirley, and my sisters Lauren and Mary and me out to appreciate the outdoors often, and all of our family vacations centered around it. He taught us to love, preserve, and protect nature and wildlife first and foremost. He taught me at a young age how to shoot, fish, and to track wildlife for food purposes only. Although I eschewed hunting, I do love to fish and that is what we did the most.
I remember being up to my neck in muck in the crystal clear water when I was about 10, stuck in the flats of the Florida Keyes. My sisters and I dislodged our small fishing boat on a steamy day while Dad sat dry in the boat with a long pole barking orders in his never-ending endeavor to instill an appreciation of nature and toughness in us.
Although I live in California now, I still visit Florida frequently and really appreciate its delicate ecosystem. When I was in college, my father sent me to Australia and Fiji for a biology class for a month to study and experience the two most delicate and diverse ecosystems in the world, the Great Barrier Reef, and the tropical rain forests.
If my father were alive today, I think he would be appalled at the political, economic, and scientific shenanigans and wrangling. I cannot believe that almost 22 years after his death, nothing has really changed in spite of persons at his funeral promising to pick up his cause and fulfill his dream. Unfortunately for all of us, no one has filled his shoes.
Granted, he was wealthy, but he was an extremely conservative, low-key person who drove modest cars, lived in modest homes, went to bed early, disrespected pretentiousness, celebrity, and dishonesty. More than anything else, he demanded honesty and would stop at nothing to find the truth, even if it took a lifetime, and that is the most precious character trait he instilled in me.
Unfortunately, he was not able to realize his dream, and I feel an obligation to help fulfill it on his behalf some 22 years later because I share his passion and quest for real solutions to fulfill his promise of having a better future for his children, grandchildren, and the future generations of all Floridians and visitors to Florida.
Indeed, my father never wavered in his pursuit of mitigating the environmental damage to the Everglades, and protecting and restoring the “River of Grass” and his beloved Florida Bay were goals he relentlessly pursued -- even as he died on the way to meet the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that fateful day. As evidenced by the respect still accorded him today, his name is nearly synonymous with the historic Everglades restoration that Florida and our federal government have been working on for nearly three decades.
Sadly, his dream of saving the Everglades could be slipping away as the focus on restoration has been replaced by the current battle pitting coastal environmental groups against agriculture in order to reduce damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
Much to all of our dismay, current environmentalism has become just another special interest relying on glitzy galas, well-heeled lobbyists, and an army of paid staffers to spread its messages. Where my father used his passion to urge the public and private sectors and our political leaders to come together to take action, today’s activists are spreading a message of hate and division.
My father’s battle with farmers was to ensure that those responsible for pollution paid their fair share. He fought for stricter water quality requirements and for farmers south of Lake Okeechobee to help restore the Everglades south of their farms. He always said he would never be around to see his efforts fully realized, but he knew progress was within his reach.
He would be happy to see that sugarcane farmers have taken responsibility for cleaning their water and paying their fair share of restoration. Most of all, he would have been thrilled to witness the incredible progress we are seeing today with more natural water flow -- more than 90 percent of the Everglades are meeting strict clean water standards, and the recent projects under way to get more clean water to Florida Bay.
Despite this progress, however, today’s members of the Everglades Foundation, an organization that my father founded, have strayed far from his mission. I have conducted extensive research over the years, and talked to many people, both farmers and scientists, and the extensive flooding of Florida Bay with excess nitrogen in the 1990s caused massive algae blooms and wildlife mortality. This was not what my father was led to believe by Everglades Foundation "scientists" Jay Zieman and Ron Jones.
In the press and on social media, folks are callously dismissing the generational family farming communities south of Lake Okeechobee. My father always made a point of reminding us that we may come from different backgrounds and viewpoints, but we can all work together and have shared goals in an attempt to have a win-win outcome that takes everything accurately, fairly, and scientifically into consideration.
That is partially why my father was so well embraced, and respected, for he knew how to compromise and to negotiate tough, and complex issues in order resolve them accurately, honestly, and fairly, which is a goal we all share. For my father and the many others working with him at the time, that shared goal was to restore the Everglades and Florida Bay.
I don’t know precisely where my father would have stood on the current debate over the acquisition of land south of Lake Okeechobee, but I do know that he would have focused on solutions that kept the Everglades from further harm. I know that my father would NEVER support a plan calling for sending massive amounts of polluted water south to the Everglades, particularly at times when the sensitive Everglades ecosystem is already too full. I also think he would be considering the issue more comprehensively, taking into consideration the entire ecosystem, north, south, and central while considering the complex and comprehensive effects of the many septic systems throughout the State, as well as the effects of nitrogen, fertilizers, pollution and pesticides from our air and soil.
If he had to, my father would have hired numerous experienced and accurate scientists and weighed all of their opinions in making a decision. That is what he taught me to do when making decisions, to accurately and carefully consider and weigh options. When it comes to humans, flora and fauna, there is no room for error, especially considering the delicacy of this ecosystem.
Getting the proper timing, quantity and quality and more natural conveyance of water south has been the focus for literally billions of dollars of state and federal monies. With the development of South Florida, the remaining Everglades is half its original size and re-routing hundreds of billions of gallons of nutrient-rich Lake Okeechobee water south has never been a part of Everglades restoration. No matter how simple it sounds, sending that much additional lake water south would destroy what’s left of the Everglades.
The Everglades Foundation that my father founded has badly lost its way. Rather than keeping momentum for Everglades restoration moving steadily forward and ensuring funding to complete these science-based projects is not lost to other priorities, my step-mother Mary Barley, Paul Tudor Jones and current leadership have lost sight of my father’s dreams.
Granted, damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries needs to be seriously addressed. There has to be some way of keeping that water out of the lake and out of the estuaries. However, the solution to those problems CANNOT come at the expense of the finally recovering Everglades.
My hope is that the current debate playing out in the Florida Legislature can stay focused on solutions that continue real restoration. We only have one Everglades.
Catherine Barley-Albertini, daughter of Everglades Foundation founder George Barley, graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, San Diego and works as a commercial real estate investment strategist/investor/developer. She lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Calif. on the edge of the San Elijo Lagoon estuary and Pacific Ocean. Copyright 2017 Catherine Barley-Albertini.
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