The 19 Best Environmentalists in South Florida

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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."

Panagioti Tsolkas: Today, everyone thinks of Lake Worth as a funky beachside city that harbors a bunch of radicals (like former Mayor Cara Jennings, the woman who yelled at Rick Scott in Starbucks this month). But the city was once a boring enclave for grannies and workaday folks. Tsolkas brought with him a lively spirit of environmental activism that had only been seen in hippie meccas like Berkeley. To protest the building of a new condo in Lake Worth, he sat atop a 25-foot-tall tripod and blocked traffic on Dixie Highway. He was protecting the Briger Forest before most of knew there was a forest in Palm Beach Gardens. These days, his civil disobedience has taken a backseat to running publications Prison Legal News and the Earth First Journal, but the mischievous and friendly character has inspired a spirit of activism that lives on. Read more about some of his greatest hits here. 

Beam Furr: At the beginning of 2016, environmentalists were starting to get that familiar feeling of disappointment in the pits of their stomachs when it looked like the state Legislature was going to pass a bill to prevent municipalities from regulating fracking. The Broward County Commission moved to do what it could by voting to ban the practice first. "This is about protecting our water supply and environment," said Furr, the commissioner from Hollywood who introduced the ordinance. Lo and behold, the sponsor of the state bill withdrew it from consideration. Even hardcore environmentalist Matthew Schwartz gives credit to Furr, saying the Broward commission's vote "sent a strong message to Tallahassee." In addition to having an awesome name and being a librarian, Furr is known by his fellow commissioners as the "King of Garbage" for his obsession with finding solutions to solid waste problems. Also, his yard is a certified wildlife habitat full of butterflies. 

David Shiffman:By combining a love for marine science with a deftness on social media, this PhD student and blogger inspires a love for learning about the environment. His Twitter handle @WhySharksMatter, has more than 25,000 followers. He will answer any question, argue any point, debunk any stupid petition, share pics of Hammerhead eyeballs, invite people shark-tagging, and tell science jokes. The man live-tweeted his thesis defense.  

Kim Porter:This diver and underwater photographer has taken it upon herself and her GoPro to call attention to the condition of coral reefs off the Broward County shores — treasures hidden in plain sight. The beach widening projects that so many property owners called for are actually harming the reefs, she says. "Last year," she told New Times, "I held a protest in the form of a 'funeral' for the inner reef system. [Recently], I did one at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea... Nobody even realizes there's a reef out there. They think the reef stops at the Keys. They see a dump truck [bringing sand] and they say, 'Yay, we'll have new, beautiful beaches!' I don't." 

David Fleshler, Christine Stapleton, and Jenny Staletovich: It takes a certain amount of institutional knowledge to know your DEP from your DERM and your CEPP from your CERP.  This dream trio of environmental reporters from the Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, and Miami Herald, respectively, cut through the proverbial crap and understand who needs to be publicly pressured on any given day. Stapleton untangled complicated rules about phosphorus and mercury used by the agriculture industry and told us straight-up that "the so-called emergencies aren't really emergencies and the state agency responsible for protecting the public... rarely inspects." Staletovich knows her way around Biscayne Bay like nobody's business. And Fleshler gives us awesome tales about the weird birds and giant snails that surround us. He's also very cute when he tries to catch pythons.   

Laura Reynolds: "Regulators are not protecting the environment," Reynolds wrote plainly in a Miami Herald op-ed last week, on the topic of radioactive leakage at Turkey Point (though that headline could have applied to numerous instances where the fox — or nobody at all — is guarding the henhouse under Rick Scott). Always a scrappy fighter facing a big, powerful foe, the past executive director of Tropical Audubon and current wonder woman at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy vowed that her organization "plans to do everything in its power to hold FPL to the high standards necessary to protect [Everglades] national park, our waters, and our drinking water."

Susan Hargreaves: You'd be hard-pressed to find a more compassionate person than the founder of Animal Hero Kids, who will sweetly and patiently describe how cruelty to animals is the source of many environmental ills and then scribble out a vegan shopping list for you to follow. A watchdog of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, she was an outspoken critic of last year's bear hunt. Her main gig, though, is harnessing young people's love of nature and empowering them to become leaders themselves. 

Chris Brennan: Last we checked, that rain tree was still standing. We owe it largely to Brennan, a park ranger turned water taxi captain turned bartender who led the public outcry against the potential moving of a hundred-year-old tree for a condo development and has never been meek about challenging Fort Lauderdale's moneyed political crowd. Last year, he had the gumption, smarts, and wonderful sense of humor to run for mayor on a "gonzo" platform: "Rip up all city streets with jackhammers" and "sod the streets at once," he said. "All public movement would be by foot and a fleet of bicycles." Here's hoping for his next act. 

Guy Harvey: Perhaps most influential in having given millions of dads something to wear, Guy Harvey has also helped the cause of conservation in a massive way. The fisherman/diver/scientist/artist seized on watermen's love of the water and helped direct their attention to marine conservation efforts. He also puts his money (from sales of 2 million T-shirts a year!) where his mouth is: He founded the Guy Harvey Research Institute with Nova Southeastern University in Dania Beach. South Florida is lucky to have him. 

Chris McVoy: Some people like their politicians to dole out "straight talk." We prefer ones that can speak five languages and have written books on the "predevelopment ecohydrology of the Everglades." McVoy worked for the South Florida Water Management District until the Legislature in 2011 cut funding and let go hundreds of scientists in an unprecedented "brain drain." McVoy decided to be the politician rather than be beholden to one. Can't this dude be the governor?

Sorry to anyone we missed! Feel free to give shoutouts in the comments.

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