This is the time of year I always feel compelled to remind everyone that the first Thanksgiving took place in Florida.
It happened about 50 years before the Pilgrims showed up. The attendees were Spanish settlers who’d just landed at what we now call St. Augustine and the native Timucuans who greeted them. They ate garbanzo stew and alligator, and afterward probably got into an argument over whose sports team had a better record.
We here in Florida have so much to be thankful for. Our state parks have won four national awards. Our beaches are routinely ranked among the best in the nation. And we have the funniest police log items in the world, such as the one about the Florida man who said he hid a gator in his garage because he was worried someone would try to eat it.
This year, I would like to add something new to the list. I am thankful for Ron Magill.
Magill is an unfamiliar figure in Pensacola, Jacksonville and Orlando. But in Miami, Magill is probably the biggest celebrity who hasn’t played football, launched a music career or been indicted for public corruption.
For more than 40 years, he’s been appearing on TV to tout the importance of wildlife conservation and extol the virtues of his employer, Miami-Dade’s Zoo Miami. Think of him as a modern version of dweeby Marlin Perkins from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” but with the rugged looks of a Hollywood star.
At 63, he makes $127,000 a year as the zoo’s communications director and “goodwill ambassador.” That’s a nice pile of dough for a local government employee.
So you can imagine everyone’s shock when Magill risked that cushy job (and salary) to announce that he’s openly opposing his employer.
After all, he said, how could anyone employed by the zoo keep silent about such a destructive deal? “We’re supposed to be a conservation organization,” he told me this week.
The people he works for were not happy to see him on the other side.
“They told me I was forbidden to say anything about it,” he said. “And I said, ‘You can tell me what to say as Ron Magill, County Employee. But you can’t tell me what I can say as Ron Magill, Private Citizen.”
Magill’s bold stand attracted a lot more public attention to an ongoing battle over the water park, said Elise Bennett, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. The organization is part of a consortium of environmental groups battling the project in court.
“It was flying under the radar for a whole lot of people until Ron spoke up,” she said.
Despite his popularity, Magill said, he told his wife, “I fully expect to get fired.”
So far, though, he hasn’t seen a pink slip. He hasn’t seen any other official reaction, either. However, he did hear a rumor that one of his bosses “wants to set me on fire.”
I am a big fan of whistleblowers like Magill. This dates back to the first time I saw Lauren Bacall tell Humphrey Bogart in “To Have and Have Not” that all he had to do was to put his lips together and blow.
When I was a kid, two people were hailed as national heroes when they blew the whistle on wrongdoing. One was Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers detailed the hidden history of the Vietnam War. The other was John Dean, the first White House official to accuse President Richard Nixon of direct involvement in the Watergate cover-up.
As I have grown older, though, I’ve realized that most people have no inclination for such heroism. It’s easier to keep quiet and keep collecting that paycheck.
But every now and then, people hit a point of frustration and anger where they feel an overwhelming urge to put their lips together and whistle like a steam kettle.
For instance, in the early 2000s, a soft-spoken U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist named Andy Eller repeatedly complied with his bosses’ wishes that he avoid any challenge to well-connected developers building in Florida panther habitat.
Over and over, Eller had to grit his teeth and okay new subdivisions that he knew would destroy the places the endangered cats called home. He had to say yes to things he knew were wrong.
Finally, he’d had enough. In 2004, with help from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Eller filed a whistleblower suit against his own agency. He accused his bosses of using bogus science so their wrong decisions appeared to be right.
His bosses responded by firing him.
Magill went through something similar before he reached the point of speaking up. Looking back now on the times he kept silent to keep his job, he said, “I’m ashamed.”
Believe it or not, the Miami Wilds controversy dates back to the mid-2000s, which in fast-moving South Florida is akin to Old Testament times.
In 2006, the county sought permission from the voters to build a for-profit entertainment complex next to the zoo.
“I voted for it,” Magill said, and he was far from the only one.
The ballot stipulated that nothing would be built on land that’s “environmentally sensitive.” However, said Lauren Jonaitis, senior conservation director of the Tropical Audubon Society, “it’s very clear that this IS environmentally sensitive.”.
That type of landscape is known as “pine rocklands.” Once Miami-Dade had more than 186,000 acres of it. Now only 2 percent is left. It’s crucial for a lot of imperiled animals and plants. You could say they’re the real Miami wild.
“I can’t think of another case that I’ve worked on that involved so many endangered species,” Bennett told me.
Yet national, state, and local agencies have repeatedly allowed developers to wipe out the pine rocklands. The most recent instance occurred in the mid-2010s when the University of Miami sold 88 acres for $22 million so it could be turned into apartments, a Chili’s, an LA Fitness and a Walmart.
Magill could see this was wrong. Yet he kept quiet about it, afraid of what would happen if he caused a ruckus.
“I’m embarrassed about that,” he said this week. “All I can do now is ask people’s forgiveness.”
One of the imperiled animals that uses the pine rocklands is the Florida bonneted bat, the largest bat in Florida, with a wingspan that measures 20 inches.
The bat gets its name from its big ears that stick up like the ears on the Batman costume worn by Michael Keaton (Sorry, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck and Robert Pattison, your ears just don’t measure up.).
Bonneted bats were added to the endangered list just a decade ago, although much about them remains unknown. At one point federal officials tried using dogs to track down their hidden roosts by following the scent of their guano. (I feel bad for those dogs, don’t you?)
The site where Miami Wilds wants to build its complex contains a remote parking lot used by zoo visitors. But when the cars are gone and the sun goes down, Jonaitis said, “it’s transformed at night into a foraging area for the bonneted bats.”
The Miami Wilds project will chase the bats away, she said, putting them in even more peril of extinction.
What’s particularly outrageous is that that bat-friendly land was handed over to Miami-Dade County by the National Park Service. You would think they’d be concerned about the South Florida environment – after all, they’re the folks who run Everglades National Park.
Yet the federal agency gave the county permission to proceed with the water park plan without checking the impact on endangered species like the bonneted bat, Bennett said. To the environmental groups battling the Miami Wilds project, that failure stunk like a load of guano.
They sued and “the National Park Service admitted they violated the law,” Bennett said. That means the park service must now do a full environmental analysis, and that has thrown the water park plans into turmoil.
In the meantime, Magill had been talking to one of the developers and pondering his next career move – bagging groceries at Publix, for instance.
Paul Lambert is one of the three developers who wants to build not just a water park but also a 200-room hotel and up to 20,000 square feet of restaurants and shops by the zoo. He’s not a bit worried about the bats.
Lambert told me he and his partners hired their own consultant who, he insisted, has cast doubt on whether the area is really that important for the bonneted bats.
Lambert said he’d communicated with Magill to reassure him about the project’s impact. In April, “he indicated he’d be supportive,” the developer said. “Then, right before Labor Day, he came out with all this opposition. To this day, I have no idea what happened.”
Magill told me that that, behind the scenes, the zoo’s own biologists “were screaming about this for over a year.”
He said he was never “supportive” of Miami Wilds, especially after Lambert told him via email that the developers were planning to build two new roads through the rocklands.
And then the developer “began berating our scientists” and saying the parcel was not important for the bats, Magill said. That’s the point at which he decided he couldn’t keep silent anymore.
He showed up at an Aug. 31 Tropical Audubon Society meeting where, according to Jonaitis, “he spoke passionately about the project.”
The next day, the Miami’s Community News published a long opinion piece he’d written about why the Miami Wilds project was wrong.
Meanwhile, on X (formerly Twitter) he told his 60,000 followers: “I’m tired of watching developer greed devastate priceless natural treasures. I will not simply stand by and watch this happen in my own backyard! It may cost me my job, but to say nothing is to be complicit.”
Since then, he’s made the rounds of local media outlets as if he were touting a new zoo exhibit. But this time the exhibit on display is roaring Ron Magill, Private Citizen.
He even led a rally at the zoo earlier this month that drew lots of sign-waving protesters. While the environmental groups had battled the project for years, several protesters told Magill that he was the first opponent to grab their attention.
“He’s inspired many people to take action,” Jonaitis said.
Lambert, sounding annoyed, told me he didn’t understand why Magill didn’t just resign his job in protest. “That’s what people do,” he said.
Magill was elated last week when Mayor Daniella Levine Cava sent commissioners a memo that called for cancelling the Miami Wilds lease “to best safeguard the county’s interests and our community’s needs and objectives.”
If the commissioners do what she says, Lambert told me, “to be totally candid, it’s a little bit unclear about where that leaves the project.” (I think it kills it deader than a flattened iguana on the Palmetto Expressway, but I’m no land-use lawyer.)
Magill said he’s not optimistic the commissioners will do what the mayor recommends.
“There’s never been an issue of the environment-versus-development here where the environment won,” he told me. “But if by some kind of God’s miracle, it happens, it will be precedent-setting. It’ll be the best accomplishment of my career.”
So when you sit down today to dine on whatever variation on alligator and garbanzo stew is on the table, say a prayer that the county will spare the bonneted bats, the pine rocklands and Ron Magill.
And pray that even more whistleblowers will be inspired to step forward to do what’s right. We need them.
Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: email@example.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.
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