The 19 Best Environmentalists in South Florida

Today, we have fresh water to drink, clean air to breathe, and sea turtles to awwwww at. But let's be very clear: These are not givens — particularly in a state driven by Rick Scott, a Republican legislature, and constant development.

In Florida, there's practically a war on nature. Wild animal habitat is constantly taken over by homes, highways, Walmarts, and FIU's sports fields (grrrr). Oil drilling and fracking are always-looming possibilities. Thanks to sugar growers, runoff, and roads, Lake Okeechobee and the entire Everglades ecosystem have been almost completely decimated in a mere hundred years. Sea-level rise threatens not just our homes but our drinking supply. On top of that, now we gotta worry about radioactive isotopes from the nuclear power plant getting into the water. Greeaaat. 

It's easy to whine and complain; it's tougher to take action. Yet every day, a small, dedicated, certainly underpaid and mostly unheralded class of individuals goes to work to combat our environmental challenges. They follow boring-ass administrative hearings. They decipher complex regulatory documents. They sound the alarm when there's an important petition to sign or a vote to cast. When necessary, they file the lawsuits, and when we're lucky, they even run for office.

To these folks (OK, we crammed in more than 19), especially on Earth Day (today!), some thanks are in order:

Matthew Schwartz: "It's the best of times, and the worst of times. People are more aware of environmental issues — but we're facing more threats than ever before," says Schwartz, a Brooklyn transplant and founder of the South Florida Wildlands Association, basically a one-man operation that tracks and counters threats to the environment, like proposed FPL power plants and housing developments that will destroy panther habitat. If there is a concerning bill or an important hearing, Schwartz will likely be the first one filing opposition and talking to the media. To earn a living, he leads bike and kayak tours in the Everglades.  "It's not just gloom and doom," Schwartz says. "There's still a lot of beautiful stuff people should go and enjoy." Maybe one day his nonprofit will bring in enough revenue to pay himself a salary, start and insure his own ecotourism company, and still fight the powers that be. "That's my dream," he laughs. "I can sue people and go hiking at the same time." See SouthFloridaWild.org. 

Sam Van Leer: Van Leer, who grew up on Key Biscayne, is another person who more or less single-handledly runs a nonprofit, Urban Paradise Guild, that harnesses the power of plants. About seven years ago, he quit a corporate job and launched an effort to return South Florida to "paradise"  — and fend off climate change at the same time. Big businesses would kill to have the power of leverage that he does: He runs his organization more or less on air, yet his enthusiasm alone is enough to inspire volunteers to come out six days a week to help him dig and install plants that filter air and water, create animal habitat, and provide organic food. The reward is theirs: For the price of a little sweat, volunteers take away from Van Leer a wealth of information about native plants and gardening. Currently, UPG is really looking to beef up its volunteer boards. Sign up here. 

Kristin Jacobs: All the lobbying and petitioning in the world is a big waste of breath if there are no people in office to vote the right way. Few things are as unsexy as the local zoning board... and few things so consequential. But Jacobs, a Broward College grad, started there. Then she tackled the county commission. Now, she's a state representative. She was one of the first to take action on sea-level rise as a leader of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. She's also a big proponent of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets. Said one fan, Fort Lauderdale activist Robin Merrill: "Once you meet her, she restores your hope in politics."
Michael Madfis: Can we save the world through vegetables? Maybe. Urban farmer Michale Madfis is a licensed architect, sustainable planner, and master grower of kale. As the owner of Fort Lauderdale Vegetables LLC and leader of the Broward Food System Cooperative, he develops real-world solutions showing how we can meet our needs for food and housing in a sustainable way. There's a whole corps of gardeners and farmers in South Florida who deserve credit for advancing ideas around permaculture and community gardening, but he is one of the best evangelists... and has some killer style to boot. (The bow ties!) Check out his vision for how to "merchandise urban farming" though visionary ideas like "extreme microfarm sports."

Stephanie McMillan: There's working within the system, and then there's working outside of the system. McMillan, a cartoonist, thought-provokingly traces environmental problems back to their ultimate source: capitalism! Is that "radical"? Or just logical thinking? McMillan has fun with being labeled an extremist; you gotta love her calendar, “365 Daily Affirmations for Revolutionary Proletarian Militants.” Recently, she published a comic about the Flint water crisis — in Forbes, of all places. Love the subversiveness! 

The Miccosukee Tribe: Sugar farms and modern developments pour pollutants into Lake Okeechobee, and dirty water from there moves south into wetlands controlled by the tribe. Over the past few decades, the tribe proper, through lawsuits, has fought tooth and nail to force a lowering of the levels of pollutants. It even founded its own science department, which carries out studies and experiments. Today, individual tribe members like Michael Frank, Betty Osceola, and Houston Cypress lead efforts to block environmental threats like fracking and a paved bike path that would cut across the state. The efforts of the few benefit the many. 

Rachel Silverstein: Silverstein has the coolest job title: "The Miami Waterkeeper." Scientist, scuba diver, legal advocate, and spokesperson, Silverstein followed the disaster when PortMiami was dredged and ended up killing acres of coral. Now, as Port Everglades is also set to be deepened and widened, she's intervening to see that Broward's coral don't meet the same sad fate. 
Ron Bergeron: Not all conservationists are dyed-in-the-organic-cotton liberals. "Alligator" Ron Bergeron wears blue jeans, a killer mustache, and a belt buckle the size of your head. He runs a rodeo and drives a gold-plated Hummer. A builder and garbage company magnate, he has constructed roads all over South Florida. But he brings a a very important element to the table: modern reality. As much as some of us might like to live in tree huts and ride fuel-efficient horses to work, it ain't happenin'. Bergeron has profited off of modern development but has funneled his wealth into large tracts of land and left them undeveloped. Because he is one himself, he can talk to wealthy landowners and persuade them to follow win-win approaches like conservation easements, which give property owners financial incentives to keep their holdings undisturbed. He's also a hunter and harnesses the will of like-minded Gladesmen who want wild places protected so they can fish and hunt there. A longtime member of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he was the only commissioner to vote against a bear hunt last year.

Richard and Siouxzen Whitecloud:
Two days before this couple was set to move out of Florida, Siouxzen saw some sea turtles run over. The Whiteclouds scrapped their plans, stuck around, and devoted their lives to protecting the critters. They formed a nonprofit called Sea Turtle Oversight Protection, got specially trained to monitor turtles during nesting season, and now lead a small army of volunteers who stay awake all night from March to October.  The results have been phenomenal: Turtle populations rebounded to record highs in 2013. The Whiteclouds are constantly working to get politicians and businesses to value the environment over the almighty dollar. The awesomely outspoken Richard challenges cities to enforce sea turtle lighting laws. "Just pick one," he pleads. "Pick the biggest violator. Slap a big fine on one, bring their ass in court."
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Deirdra Funcheon