They’re the polluters’ worst nightmare: greens with guns. They hunt, but always eat what they kill. They work within the system, and they’re not afraid to go to court. They punch above their weight in government circles, operating on a budget smaller than your average lobbyist’s bar tab. And despite Florida’s best efforts to drain, pave, and overpopulate itself to death, they are hell-bent on saving it.
The Florida Wildlife Federation is the most effective environmental outfit in the South, maybe in the country. Over the past decade, this eclectic posse of deer hunters and bunny-huggers, backyard Darwins and bird-watchers, dedicated anglers and nouveau Thoreauvians, has become a force to be reckoned with. “We’re agile and we’re lean,” says Manley Kearns Fuller III, president of FWF. “If you’re not selective with what you emphasize, you can get bogged down. You need a plan, win or lose. When you get whipped, you’ve got to have a masterful retreat, like Robert E. Lee after Gettysburg.”
FWF has convinced a Republican-run state to preserve 140,000 acres of critical panther habitat in condo-crazed South Florida, helped return a 55,000-acre failed subdivision to native wetlands, enacted protections for sea turtles, scared off coal-fired power plants, headed up opposition to drilling for oil in Florida waters, authored an amendment to the Florida Constitution making it easier (and cheaper) for land owners to conserve rather than develop their property, and successfully negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency on new standards for clean water in Florida.
All that was just last year.
In contrast to their big-money adversaries, plotting the next golf-course community in plush-carpeted downtown offices, FWF’s HQ is more eco-geek than corporate suite. In a townhouse about a mile from the capitol, they share digs with the Organization for Artificial Reefs and the Association Française de Tallahassee. Posters of manatees, panthers, egrets, and other charismatic Florida species cover the walls along with diplomas, antlers, award plaques, and a mounted boar head and deer skulls. An assortment of neckties (one with a wood-duck pattern) hangs from a rack in the corner—you never know when you might have to meet with a senator. Books are stacked on the floor, on tables, in chairs: Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass, an ecological catalog of Florida’s flora and fauna, John McPhee on fish, E.O. Wilson on ants, and a guide to poultry breeds, among others. A bright-colored print of Cherokee roses, violets, pitcher plants, and Atamasco rain lilies proclaims the beauties of hell (there’s a North Florida swamp called Tate’s Hell), while reports on climate change jostle with take-out menus, phone messages, and a recent New York Times story on the death of Fess Parker, the actor who played Davy Crockett on the 1950s television show Disneyland.
Ever since large numbers of people started pouring into Florida to plant cotton and oranges; or to build railroads, hotels, retirement homes, and theme parks, there’s been a seemingly insurmountable tension between capitalism and critters, “progress” and conservationist resistance. The glories of the natural environment—trees, water, warmth—are why people come down here. But then they proceed to wreck what attracted them in the first place. Naturalist William Bartram, traveling through East Florida in the 1760s, described a “blissful garden” filled with groves of “towering Magnolia” and “exalted Palm.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, who relocated to Florida after the Civil War, praised the gentle climate and the abundant varieties of flowers, birds, and fish. An early eco-warrior, she railed against the gents who took boat trips down the St. Johns and the Ocklawaha rivers to shoot alligators, and castigated the fashionistas whose lust for feathers to adorn their hats was decimating the egrets. Yet Bartram also imagined settlers clearing the groves for farmland, and Stowe cooked up a plan to “colonize” the state with Yankee entrepreneurs—who would drain her beloved marshes.
In 1937, a group of Florida hunters, worried that game species were becoming endangered, founded FWF. One of the Federation’s first accomplishments, finalized in 1943, was getting the state government to create the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) to manage the woods and the waters. Florida and Arkansas are the only two states that enshrine such an entity in their constitutions. Since then, FWF has been trying to educate, pressure, and occasionally shame both government and private citizens to do right by Florida’s natural treasures.
Today, FWF has more than 13,000 official members, plus six times that many who participate in programs such as their annual sweepstakes: You can win a boat or an eco-friendly car, such as a Toyota Prius or a Ford Fusion. The Federation has volunteer activists all over the state and a volunteer board of directors. There are only seven full-time staffers. Once the province of camo-clad WASPs, FWF is now Obama-America diverse: male and female, Wonderbread white and African American, Southerner and Snowbird. Some like to bag game: Jenny Brock, the Northwest Florida regional director, hunts in the Wakulla County woods near her house, and VP for Conservation and General Counsel Preston Robertson goes after deer in Georgia and Illinois with a sixty-four-pound compound bow. Others are content to appreciate Nature unarmed. Diane Hines, FWF’s Pennsylvania-bred vice president for administration, says, “I’m not a wildlife expert or a hunter. I come from a golfing family.”
Manley Fuller is both a wildlife conservationist and a hunter. A scion of an old North Carolina family, he was raised messing around in the woods. He studied history and zoology at Duke, then did graduate work in wildlife biology and plant ecology at N.C. State. He has, well, a thing for alligators, dating back to when he was a kid. “Alligators were the closest I could get to a dinosaur,” he says.
For his seventh birthday, in 1959, his parents took him to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida. There, the noted herpetologist and leading light of Ripley’s Believe It or Not radio show would milk venom from rattlesnakes. That was pretty cool to young Manley, but the real star was Big George, a fifteen-foot gator weighing a quarter ton: “He was the biggest alligator I’d ever seen.”
“Manley Fuller,” says Derb Carter, Director of the Carolinas office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, “is the only person I know who can walk into a swamp and grab an alligator, and walk into a corporate boardroom and convince them to save the swamp.”
Preston Robertson, Fuller’s second-in-command, isn’t a scientist but a lawyer who has worked on conservation issues for most of his career. A landowner and tree farmer who counts Nansemond Indians and Confederate officers among his ancestors, Robertson spearheaded FWF’s effort in 2008 to change the state constitution, giving private landowners tax breaks to protect their property through permanent conservation easements. At one point during the publicity campaign, he dressed up as a Florida black bear to promote his amendment: “It was hot in that bear suit. But in the end, we got almost seventy percent of the vote.”
FWF people will tell you they’re effective because of their education programs, sophisticated lobbying campaigns, and grassroots organizing. And that’s true. But another reason they’re the alpha dog of the green pack is that, if necessary, they will sue the bejesus heck out of the state, the feds, Big Sugar, Big Agriculture—whoever is dirtying up their patch of the planet. They go for diplomacy first, trying to negotiate with whomever is raping and pillaging the land, but if that doesn’t work, FWF will (as they like to put it) “pull the trigger” and go to court.
Their record is impressive. In 2005, FWF and other environmental and growth management groups forced the Scripps Biomedical Institute to halt construction of its Florida headquarters on sensitive land next to a wildlife refuge. Then-Governor Jeb Bush had favored the site, at the edge of the Everglades, probably because the new taxpayer-funded infrastructure—power, water, sewer, roads—would open up the Everglades Agricultural Area to development. The tantrum-prone Bush ranted about “legal terrorists” impeding progress. In the end, Scripps moved its facility to a more suitable urban site: what the enviros wanted all along.
FWF has scored big in two important Clean Water Act cases—water being Florida’s most vexed issue. The organization was a plaintiff in a 2006 lawsuit over the pumping of agricultural wastewater into Lake Okeechobee. A federal judge ruled in FWF’s favor, wounding Big Ag’s ability to make fat profits, impelling the state of Florida to cut a historic deal with U.S. Sugar to buy Sugar’s Everglades land as part of the overall restoration project. Then last year, FWF and other conservation outfits successfully negotiated a consent decree with the EPA, mandating that numeric standards be used to determine if a river or a lake is impaired. Previously, the state used a “narrative standard,” which basically said that if the fish ain’t belly-up, the water is fine. David Guest, a feared and respected environmental litigator (the Commissioner of Agriculture is rumored to refer to him as “the devil”) with the national law firm Earthjustice, represented FWF in both cases.
Manley Fuller isn’t interested in suing for the fun of it: “We look for circumstances where we can make a difference. We try to give our members a good return on their conservation investment—bang for their buck.”
It’s a loud bang, too. These Clean Water Act cases have set important national precedents. Other states will soon be following Florida’s lead. Felicia Coleman, director of Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, credits Fuller with sharp political intelligence: “He understands how to link good science with sound policy. He can peel away each leaf of the complicated, sometimes dense, seemingly inaccessible science, and neutralize the partisan rhetoric to reveal the core environmental issue. That is art.”
FWF will need that art in the years to come. The business and agriculture lobbies are screaming that if the EPA water standards hold, taxes will rise, farming in Florida will die, and sewer bills will be thousands of dollars per year. The recession has slowed the state’s runaway building boom. Rock-bottom revenues have driven funding for habitat preservation to near-extinction and loosened restrictions on wetland destruction. The Everglades land deal is on hold, pending resolution of another slew of lawsuits.
Until the monster oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, Florida’s Republican leaders were all about drilling, baby, drilling. They’ve gone quiet for now, but once the TV images of tar balls and goo-covered pelicans fade, the petro-pushers will undoubtedly return. And FWF will be ready. They are sponsoring a petition to place an amendment to the Florida Constitution banning oil and gas drilling in state waters. In the meantime, they’ll keep trying to restore the water flow in the Everglades, promote clean energy sources, and save the North Atlantic right whale, only a few hundred of which are left and whose calving grounds off the Florida coast happen to be where the U.S. Navy wants to build an Undersea Warfare Training Range.
For Manley Fuller and his comrades, preserving wild places and wild creatures isn’t a job, it’s a calling. “I remember when the bulldozers came into woods I used to play in up in North Carolina,” he says. “They knocked down the trees and ruined the pond where I used to catch frogs. I’d pull up those stakes where they were going to build a house, but that didn’t stop them doing it. So I thought I’d find another way.”
Photographs by Ryan Pelham.