Darren Soto kayaking Shingle Creek. He is a Democratic Congressman from Central Florida. Courtesy, Darren Soto.
You may find this hard to believe, but Florida is full of mythical creatures.
I don’t mean the fantastic critters you see at the theme parks – the talking mice, the flying carpet, the dancing candlesticks serving your dinner.
No, I mean things like our version of the Yeti, the odiferous Skunk Ape. It supposedly stalks the wilds of Southwest Florida but is seen most commonly on T-shirts and bumper stickers at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters gift shop in Ochopee.
And of course, I’m also referring to the performing sea creatures at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, the only place in the world where the list of government jobs includes the word “mermaid.”
One mythical creature we appear to have here in massive quantities is the “politician who loves the environment.”
Sure, we’ve got lots of politicians who say they love the environment. But then they back measures that make it easier for developers to destroy wetlands, or block proposals that would tighten water pollution rules, or they ignore the warnings about what climate change is going to do to our low-lying state.
Would they be so quick to support developers and polluters if they actually spent much time enjoying Florida’s natural wonders?
I was thinking about this the other day as I was driving on Interstate 75 along with about 90 percent of all the speeding 18-wheelers in Florida. We rolled past Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the notorious Café Risqué and a place that claims to be the largest vendor of fireworks in the whole state.
I have camped at Paynes Prairie and enjoyed it, even though I didn’t get to see any of the bison herd that lives there. (That’s right, Paynes Prairie is the place in Florida where the buffalo roam.) The thing I remember most about it was that the campground was pitch black at night. It was easier to see the stars there than anywhere else I’ve visited in the state.
Driving past, remembering that experience, I wondered how many of our state legislators have ever camped at Paynes Prairie, or any of our other award-winning state parks. I’d be willing to bet a lot more of them have visited Café Risqué and the fireworks place than have ever set foot in a single one of our parks – even the one with the mermaids.
Ecotourism has a huge impact on the state’s economy, attracting millions of out-of-state visitors and creating jobs. Our natural bounty of springs, swamps, forests and beaches are a big reason why a lot of us enjoy living here, in spite of the occasional bald python turning up in the bathroom.
So why don’t we elect politicians who share our priorities and values? Why do we choose people who are willing to take money from polluters and do their bidding, even though that’s clearly counter to what’s good for the whole state?
Out of curiosity, I called up R. Boyd Murphree, co-author of the recent award-winning book Governors of Florida, and asked if any of Florida’s 46 governors could be considered outdoorsmen.
He pointed out that Napoleon Broward, governor from 1905 to 1909, was the captain of his own ship (which he used for running guns to Cuba, which was against the law). He wasn’t exactly a good example, though, because Broward was so eager to drain the Everglades he personally cranked up the dredge.
Murphree also sent me some news stories about Doyle Carlton blasting a rattlesnake with a shotgun (1929) and Millard Caldwell going on a bear hunt (1946). Caldwell was a big turkey hunter, as was Lawton Chiles, governor from 1990 to 1998.
Chiles enjoyed turkey hunting so much he’d sometimes sneak out without his security detail so he could blast away at the birds in solitude. He also showed up for his second inauguration wearing a coonskin cap and toting a potato gun, with which he fired several spuds toward the governor’s mansion.
Other governors were more likely to be found indoors than out, Murphree said. LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew, both of whom did a lot to stem the rampant destruction of Florida’s land and water while in office, were not exactly running out to the beach every weekend for sun and fun, he said.
At least they didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t. While Rick Scott was governor, he briefly carried out a series of what he called “Let’s Get to Work Days,” including one in which he dressed up as a park ranger at Hillsborough River State Park. The result was a rather unflattering photo in which Scott resembled Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.”
Perhaps that’s why Scott took such great delight in slashing the budgets and staffing for every environment-related agency in the state. (He did go on a secret deer-hunting trip in Texas once, but the trip was sponsored by a big sugar company hunting for political influence, so that appeared to be more business than pleasure.)
Scott’s successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, seems to enjoy holding outdoor press conferences at which he either ignores or berates reporters, but I don’t think that counts as an outdoor sport.
Rather than wearing, say, a wide-brimmed hat, a fishing shirt and some cargo shorts, DeSantis always shows up for these outdoor gigs in an indoor outfit. He wears a dark suit jacket and a dress shirt with an unbuttoned collar, so he looks like a lawyer who just strolled into the bar nearest the courthouse for a quick snort before heading home.
In June, he dressed like that for an outdoor press conference to tout the state’s latest python hunt. Afterwards, he and other state officials posed for photos while holding a python.
I couldn’t help noticing that DeSantis held the big snake somewhat gingerly, not unlike the way you might hold a chocolate bar on a hot Sunday so you don’t get anything on your church clothes. Meanwhile the guy next to him – South Florida Water Management District board member Ronald “Alligator Ron” Bergeron – grabbed that reptile with all the gusto you might expect from a guy who’s a rodeo champ, alligator wrestler and python hunter. If I were DeSantis, I would avoid standing next to Bergeron at these events.
By contrast, let me tell you about a conversation I had this week with former governor and senator Bob Graham and his daughter Gwen, a former congresswoman.
Graham, the son of a dairy farmer-turned-developer, is remembered today for launching the “Save Our Everglades” program, setting up similar programs to save the state’s coastlines and rivers and co-founding the Save the Manatee Club with Jimmy Buffett.
Graham often took his family on trips to splash around at the beach and to visit Stiltsville near Miami, his daughter said. They paddled the Suwannee River, and once took a houseboat trip “through the Everglades in the middle of mosquito season,” Gwen Graham told me. She called that trip “infamous.”
When I asked whether those excursions helped influence his policy decisions on the environment, she said, “Why don’t you ask him?” and handed her dad the phone.
“Yes, they influenced me,” the 84-year-old retiree said, noting that anyone who visits a Florida beach regularly is bound to want to save that beach from harm.
I saw what he meant when I considered the cases of a couple of his Republican successors. Jeb Bush, for instance, took a canoe trip very early during his two terms in office, paddling the Ichetucknee River in 1999 with the state’s top springs expert, Jim Stevenson. By the time Jeb! made it back to dry land, he’d agreed with Stevenson’s suggestion of launching an effort to restore the state’s declining springs (an effort Scott later cut). Imagine if Bush had gone on a trip like that every year of his eight years.
Then we have Charlie Crist, who like Graham grew up in Florida. For all his faults, including an inability to stick to one political party, Crist has always enjoyed boating and fishing. According to his congressional aide, Chloe Kissick, he’s also a birdwatcher.
Is it any wonder, then, that a guy who spends a lot of time on the water was the first (and so far last) governor to take serious steps to fight the rising sea level?
Talk the talk, hike the hike
Sometimes what people think is a myth turns out to be real. For decades, people in the Panhandle debated whether a creature they called “the leopard eel” was wiggling all over the swamps and marshes around Eglin Air Force Base, or if it was just a story.
Then in 2018 a pair of scientists found one in the wild. They discovered that it was A) real, not mythical and B) not an eel but a type of salamander known as a siren. It had a long, spotted body and little wing-like structures on its head that turned out to be gills.
Bearing that example in mind, I called up Aliki Moncrief of the group Florida Conservation Voters to ask if there might be some Florida politician who does, indeed, love Florida’s environment enough to spend lots of time out in it.
The best example she had to offer was not a governor or legislator, but someone in Congress: U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who represents a Central Florida district. He’s someone who not only talks the talk, she said, but he also hikes the hike, so to speak.
“He’s trying to get the Kissimmee River designated as wild and scenic,” she said. “And he just filed a bill to have manatees moved back to the endangered species list.” (Soto, a Democrat, is working with Republican Vern Buchanan on that one.)
In a Q & A on his website, Soto said this about his outdoor excursions: “I usually get to hike or kayak probably about once or twice a month, maybe sometimes more often, usually on Sundays. Sometimes I’ll take our dog Xena. My rule of thumb is when I have a little bit of open time every now and again on a weekend, I’ll pull up on the GPS, look for green spots on the map, which are our national or state parks, and I’ll head to some of them that I haven’t been to before.”
I’m not saying that people who are allergic to sunlight and fresh air can’t propose and pass legislation that helps Florida’s environment. Nor am I saying that everyone who likes hunting, fishing and so forth is going to turn out to be politically green.
But I agree with Graham that if you’re familiar with the state’s beaches and parks and forests, you’re more likely to want to keep them in good shape.
We’re starting to gear up for the 2022 election right now, so I suggest that every time you see a candidate for local, state or federal office, you ask them: When was the last time you camped out under the stars? Have you ever tubed down the Rainbow River or canoed the Blackwater River or tossed a fishing line in Lake Okeechobee? Have you ever gone swimming with the manatees, marked sea turtle nests on the beach or chased monarch butterflies through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge?
You may get some good answers, or you may see them run like a Skunk Ape confronted by a camera crew. Either way, it should help you decide who’s really got Florida’s best interests at heart, versus the interests of the people who wave around big campaign contributions like the patrons of Café Risque tipping the dancers. Those folks, I’m sorry to say, are no myth.
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