Environment Journal talks to Amy Green, environmental journalist and author of ‘Moving Water, the Everglades and Big Sugar’, a book about environmental disaster and the unlikely conservation heroes George and Mary Barley.
What led you to this story?
Back in 2008, the governor of Florida at the time, Charlie Crist, announced a monumental deal where the state would buy out the nation’s largest sugar producer and use the land for Everglades restoration.
This was big news at the time because the role of sugar growers in the Everglades has always been very contentious.
At the time, I was working as a freelance journalist and I wrote a story looking at the Everglades Foundation. Through the course of the reporting, I spoke to Mary Barley, who is a board member at the foundation and whose late husband, George Barley established the foundation.
In our phone call, she basically told me her whole life story and I immediately knew that this was a great story that needed to be told.
What does this book reveal about corruption in the U.S?
In the early 90s, George Barley was a wealthy real estate investor in Central Floria and he loved to fish in Florida Bay. Through his fishing, he became aware of the environmental degradation that was taking place.
He quickly found out that these problems were connected to what was happening further up the peninsula in the Everglades and he soon came to understand the role that sugar growers were having in some of these problems – but when he saw the weight of their political influence he became enraged.
George Barley, like many environmentalists at the time, believed that sugar growers were not paying their fair share towards the Everglades clean up and so he decided to dedicate his life to the Everglades and started working on a political campaign for a ballot initiative that was aimed at raising money for Everglades restoration by taxing sugar growers.
The reason the Barleys decided to work on a ballot initiative is because they believed the government was too corrupt to really get anything done.
Therefore, they decided to take the issue to the people of Florida directly in a way that would allow Floridians to vote on it.
The book highlights the role of politics in fighting for environmental justice, how important is this?
The Barleys were unusual environmentalist, they were able to bring a different perspective and a more business-oriented approach to the table and I think that’s what made them successful.
George Barley was wealthy, he was politically connected and he was really the first person to bring that wealth and bring those connections to the table on behalf of the Everglades.
What is the situation like in the Everglades now?
It’s a very different time now than it was in the 90s.
The governor who is currently in office, Ron DeSantis ran for governor in 2018 when Florida was experiencing terrible water quality problems and he used this narrative to run against the sugar growers.
Since Ron DeSantis has been in office, he has revamped the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, which is the state agency overseeing the Everglades restoration.
He’s put millions of dollars toward Everglades restoration and so I think a lot of environmental groups would say that it’s a much more hopeful time for the Everglades.
What lessons do you hope that readers will take from this story?
A lot of people from the UK come to Florida for vacation, and for people in Florida the story is important because the Everglades is our state’s most important water resource, it’s responsible for the drinking water of almost 8 million Floridians.
But on a global scale, the restoration effort underway in the Everglades is one of the most ambitious attempts at ecological restoration in the world
It’s unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else in the globe, and it’s really important because it’s a global model. People come from all over the world to learn about what we’re doing in Florida in order to replicate it in their home areas, so it’s pretty important that we get it right.
To purchase Moving Water, the Everglades and Big Sugar, click here.
Photo credit – Richard Sagredo