Father and son David and Curtis Pearson sat together on the native habitat grounds of the Doc Thomas House, home of the Tropical Audubon Society (TAS), on a quintessentially lovely South Florida Sunday afternoon. They were swapping stories about recent canoeing adventures. “There was an eight to nine-foot shark hunting along the mangroves while we were paddling close by in shallow waters off Key Largo,” exclaimed TAS member David Pearson.
As if echoing their surprise and interest in his fish tale, a small, Brown Anole lizard scurried fearfully along the green picnic table where they sat, while an apparent Red-crowned Parrot poked her head curiously out of her nest atop a 12- foot hollowed out palm tree trunk.
The Tropical Audubon Society is renowned for connecting people to nature. That spirit of educated conservation set the tone at the recent TAS Annual Meeting, where former Senator Bob Graham addressed more than 100 attendees in a keynote address.
Bob Graham served 18 years in the United States Senate and was a two-term governor of Florida. In 1976, he made political history and galvanized voters in the year preceding his election by launching his “Work Days Campaign,” promising to work 300 days in various jobs around Florida. Campaign consultant at the time and collaborator for the Work Days campaign strategy, David Pearson, said, “It was the craziest campaign promise I had heard in my life, but he did, he did, he did it!”
One of Graham’s first jobs was laying asphalt on the streets of South Palm Beach and one of his final career work days was spent as a teacher at Carol City High School. In 1974, Graham received the Tropical Audubon Society Conservation Award for his work on the Land and Water Management Act of 1972.
In his keynote address to the TAS audience, Graham called these “tumultuous times for the environment in Florida.” He chastised Governor Rick Scott for proposals in House Bill 7207 that would derail a 40- year legacy of common ground environmental consensus among Democrats and Republicans that he helped establish.
“For most of our recent history up until the 1960s, Florida was thought of as a commodity, like a lump of coal or a bushel of corn,” said Graham. “We dredged and pumped up the sand and created Miami Beach. While I served in Congress, we successfully fought the Jet Port airport proposal that would have cemented the Everglades. It took another long fight to turn around the oil refinery proposal headed for Biscayne Bay, right next to Turkey Point. At last, we now know Florida today as an environmental treasure we must protect.”
Graham suggested that Everglades champion Marjorie Stoneman Douglas would be crying in her grave over Governor Scott’s proposed $180 million cut to the Everglades Restoration Program, a cause Graham fought hard for while serving in the Senate. He predicted an imminent “divorce” in the federal government and state of Florida’s commitment to matched dollars for Everglades’ restoration, ending the 15-year Everglades restoration 50/50 partnership.
“When the Congressman from Ohio points out that if Florida cannot even commit to more than $20 million to save its own backyard, then why should the federal government give one dollar more,” Graham asked the attentive audience. “Do you think that a divorce will not occur?”
“It’s time to raise a little hell and tell them we are mad as hell and we are not gonna take it anymore,” Graham continued, inspiring the cheering audience.
Although Graham acknowledged the Tallahassee budget cut mandate of 25 percent needed addressing, he said that dismantling a 40-year old, carefully acquired landmark environmental policy to justify cuts in a difficult economy is a mistake.
“In Florida, one out of every five homes is vacant,” said Graham. “The equivalent is true for commercial properties. There is no relationship between jobs in Florida and this system that has protected the quality of Florida for decades.”
Graham also reminded the audience members that environmental victories are always vulnerable and therefore, it is important to stay vigilant. “If you assume you’ve won, you are setting yourself up for defeat,” he said. “These victories are always vulnerable. When you lose the environment, it is gone forever.”
The former Senator offered TAS supporters, volunteers and friends a four-point plan on how they can voice their concerns about proposed environmental policy legislation changes: 1. Sign his petition to Governor Scott. 2. Use social media as a venue to inform and spread the word. 3. Get organized, like some of the most effective lobbyist groups on Capitol Hill. 4. Get back into the schools and educate young people.
While long-winged black and yellow zebra butterflies did a mid-air dance around the podium, Senator Graham concluded his remarks by drawing attention to the idyllic and cloudless waning sunny Sunday afternoon that all were enjoying in the outdoor setting of his speech. He challenged the audience to maintain the priceless treasure we know Florida to be by making sure the next generation may also be able to enjoy such a sublime nature-filled afternoon.
A Miami Senior High School graduate of the Class of 1955, former Senator Bob Graham recently served on President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. His recent awards include the National Park Trust Public Service Award and The Everglades Coalition Hall of Fame. His new novel of suspense, Keys to the Kingdom, will hit bookstores on June 7th.