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Nancy Smith

The Untold, Bad-Science Story of the Everglades Foundation Founders

April 13, 2015 - 6:00pm

It's been 19 years since investigative reporters Bob Malloy and Will Bourne wrote how money and political influence contributed to the demise of water quality and the seagrass/coral reef ecosystems of Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.

The story reads like a Greek tragedy. Everglades Foundation founders George Barley and Paul Tudor Jones featured large in the 7,925-word epic. According to the story, Barley bought into bad science promulgated by Joseph Zieman, a University of Virginia seagrass biologist, and his colleague, Ron Jones of Miami's Florida International University;Tudor Jones bankrolled the development of their wrong conclusions. Meanwhile, water quality in Florida Bay and the upper Keys worsened because of it.

 

Though Malloy and Bourne's story was bound for the New York Times Magazine, for reasons largely unexplained, it went unpublished. What it did do, however, is record the cluster of misery left in the wake of scientists whose theories were disastrously off base.

The story's final draft is printed here -- just click.

An ecological disaster had been unfolding in South Florida since the 1970s. "Fishermen began reporting blooms of sheetlike macroalgae in western Florida Bay, the crescent of water that lies between the Keys and the southern tip of the mainland," wrote the authors.

Much of the coral in the Keys died between 1986 and 1996. Said Malloy and Bourne, "These algae blooms today are as bad as they have ever been. ... An estimated 100,000 acres of seagrass has died while schools of tarpon and other game fish are washing up onto the beaches, killed by explosive blooms of neuro-toxic 'red tide.'"

Zieman sold the scientific community and prevailing bureaucrats his theory, that a reduction in the freshwater flow through the Everglades had led to a chronic increase in the salinity of Florida Bay. Too much salt in the water was somehow killing seagrass beds. See page 2 of the story for the complete explanation.

Zieman said the solution was to restore fresh water to the bay. Throughout the 1990s, in fact, this was the "cure." Backed by environmentalists pushing for restoration -- just as they are today -- Zieman called for fresh water to be shipped down canals operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and sent into Florida Bay.

There were a handful of scientists who studied data from the South Florida Water Management District and realized Zieman and Ron Jones had it wrong. Among them was Brian LaPointe, a marine algae specialist from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

LaPointe said, contrary to Zieman's hypothesis, there was plenty of fresh water entering the bay. In fact, more than enough most of the time. He said the algae blooms could be explained by the bay's Petrie dish effect, that you always get your biggest growth response when you add nitrogen and phosphorous together. It's eutrophication, or overenrichment by nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and silica -- the chemicals that come from sewage outfalls, industrial and agricultural runoff -- that create the algae.

Malloy and Bourne said the environmental community had to grant LaPointe "pariah status." He had to be ignored, they had no choice, the authors said. "The fact that eutrophication is such a well-documented phenomenon ... meant that ignoring LaPointe's theory would be scientifically irresponsible in the extreme."

LaPointe was right, and later vindicated. But in the meantime he and a handful of his colleagues "endured years of reduced funding, ostracism, bad-mouthing and general alienation."

Said the authors, "What we couldn't understand was, that from 1992 to the present day, why the bay's need for water was continually cast in the future tense, as if none were coming in. There was no recognition -- in the press, in official documents, anywhere of the fact that the taps had been on for more than a decade, that the water had been flowing, in fact, since the algae problem began. Gradually, we began to realize that no one, or very few, knew about that water at all."

But, they said, Ron Jones knew. Joseph Zieman knew. "Was it a coincidence that the two scientists who were looking to make a name for themselves via hypersalinity -- as both unquestionably were by the early '90s -- were forgetting to mention a fact that decimated the hypothesis?

"We guessed not. So we began looking into the mechanism by which hypersalinity was elevated from obscurity to become the model driving Florida Bay policy. We found two individuals: George Barley, the chairman of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, and the Nature Conservancy's Keys honcho, Mark Robertson."

The authors described Barley as a smooth-talking, Harvard educated Floridian who, by the time he died in a 1995 plane crash, had accumulated an estate worth more than $30 million. "Most of it came from the real estate market, from selling swampland around Orlando."

It was Barley who in 1992 brought Zieman before the Sanctuary Advisory Council in the Keys and Robertson brought him before the Nature Conservancy. Barley had more than money; he had plenty of environmental credentials, including five years as chairman of the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, service on a couple of Everglades boards including the Everglades Foundation with his friend Paul Tudor Jones, on the National Park System Advisory Board and he'd put in time as director of Florida Audubon.

So, by 1993 the public at large was hearing from the "experts": Malloy and Bourne cite a January 1993 article in a Keys newspaper under the headline, "Super Salty Water Killing Florida Bay." And "within months there were Keys citizens in the streets, demanding that the floodgates be opened. No one seemed to know that water was already flowing, thick with nitrogen."

The authors continue, "As one scientist now departed from the Keys says: 'I don't think independent science in the way I like to do it is being done here. There's an awful lot of influence peddling and so much defense of turf that I felt rational science was taking it on the nose. People who did not want to build an empire were being forced out by people who were much more aggressive and truculent. You were in or out, part of the club or not. And I wasn't part of the club.

"Zieman and Jones, along with several of Zieman's former students, were the club. Jones admits that he has 'an empire here, a nice empire.' As for Zieman, who ... received a $4 million anonymous grant (linked to Tudor Jones, Barley's multimillionaire friend) through the University of Virginia for his Florida work, he intends to be 'down here for a long, long time.'"

Actually, it didn't happen. Zieman and Jones, the purveyors of bad science, were "disappeared." Zieman, at least for a time, did leave the state after all. And Jones not only left Florida, he left his tenured professorship at FIU and all of his funding.

That's not to say the environmental community ever acknowledged their devastating mistake -- frightening in the context of the Everglades Foundation/Trust/Coalition today. Instead, they relate it all to "climate change."

Wrote Malloy and Bourne, "What began for us as an investigation of bad science, of a flawed hypothesis that seemed to acquire supernatural powers, evolved into an examination of power, money and big-business environmentalism in South Florida. As environmentalists, it rapidly soured us on the philosophy and tactics that have moved to the forefront of the battle to save our natural treasures. It became a case study in ethical disintegration."

This is a bad-science story to keep in mind as the Everglades Foundation whips up its believers and jockeys for $500 million to $700 million to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. land, only a fraction of which is usable.

Take all the time you need to fill in the gaps by reading Malloy and Bourne's 1996 effort in full -- click here: New York Times Magazine Draft - Destruction of Florida Bay

 

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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