When it comes to advocating for Everglades restoration, keep it local, don’t be afraid to follow-up and be willing to challenge policymakers.
This advice and more was shared by Bob Graham, a former United States senator and former Florida governor, along with his former press secretary Chris Hand during a service-to-activism workshop organized by FIU, the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, the Florida Conservation Coalition, and 1000 Friends of Florida earlier this month. The primary focus of the workshop was restoration of the Florida Everglades.
Nearly 75 percent of state voters approved the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative during the 2014 election. The amendment called for spending one-third of real estate taxes, estimated at about $740 million, to acquire and protect wildlife habitats, water resources, trails and parks, rural and urban spaces, and water and land resources in the Everglades. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups in June 2015, however, accuses the Florida Legislature of misappropriation of funds intended to buy and conserve these natural resources.
Nearly 50 participants — including FIU students, alumni and staff, and representatives from the public, private and nonprofit sectors — listened to presentations from Everglades science, restoration, policy and litigation experts. Each attendee was also paired with a legislator with whom they will work to inform on decisions regarding the Everglades coming before the state legislature.
“This workshop is a premier model of linking science to policy,” said Evelyn Gaiser, executive director of the FIU School of Environment, Arts and Society and lead principal investigator of the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research (FCE LTER) Program. “It’s possible to influence change in environmental policy with a planned and consistent approach that connects our legislators with the information they need to make decisions that benefit both the environment and society for the long-term.”
FIU was selected by the Bob Graham center to host the event because it is home to the FCE LTER Program, the largest collection of faculty, students, nongovernmental organizations and other agencies conducting research on how the Everglades’ coastal ecosystems have changed over time in the face of climate change and increasing human demands. Supported by the National Science Foundation, their research spans across disciplines, including geology, hydrology, chemistry, ecology, and social and political sciences.
Alumna Jessica Lee spent her academic career studying the impacts of ongoing water restoration efforts in the Everglades. For Lee, the workshop was a means to bridge science with policy and activism in the next phase of her career in conservation.
“To hear 75 percent of those who voted in the election say they want to see more money go towards water and land conservation was amazing, but to the turn around and see the legislature approve a new budget that misappropriates a majority of the funds made my heart sink,” Lee said. “Senator Graham spoke about those moments when you feel concern or anger over a problem and how to use that passion to take action. I plan on using the tools they provided us to reach out to my legislator. Seeing the budget corrected is my motivation.”
Gaiser hopes to continue to work with The Bob Graham Center for Public Service to connect decision-makers in person and to provide them with hands-on experiences in the Florida Everglades so they can experience the issues impacting the environment directly.
“I hope the workshop participants walked away with an enthusiasm for working with their legislators to provide the information needed to make proactive environmental decisions,” Gaiser said. “I hope their efforts can make a difference for South Florida’s future.”