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The environmental education of Bob Graham offers lessons for Florida today

He didn’t start out as the champion of natural Florida that he eventually became


Officially he was “D. Robert Graham,” but nearly everyone called him “Bob.”

The former governor and U.S. senator from Miami Lakes died last week at 87. Tributes poured in from everywhere, mentioning his “workdays,” his color-coded notebooks, his passion for his native state.

The coverage mentioned his environmental leadership on issues like restoration of the Everglades. Heck, some people even believed he was the model for Carl Hiaasen’s wild ex-governor Skink.

But here’s the funny thing: He didn’t start out that way.

In fact, his background would have led you to expect the opposite. His daddy, Ernest “Cap” Graham, helped start the sugar industry in the Everglades. Meanwhile, he and his brothers turned developer to create Miami Lakes.

“Miami Lakes was rather destructive of the Everglades, so it’s ironic that Graham became known as such a protector of the Everglades,” said Steve Noll, who teaches environmental history at the University of Florida and wrote the chapter on Graham in the book “The Governors of Florida.”

The environment wasn’t even an issue that Graham ran on, not at first.  In seeking election as governor in 1978, he focused on education and crime. But then, well into his first term, a national magazine slammed him on his environmental record.

Unlike recent occupants of Florida’s governor’s mansion, he didn’t issue blanket denials or try to avoid reporters.

Instead, he accepted the criticism and set to work fixing the problem. He realized that it was something important for the state, and it turned out to be important for his popularity too.

“I do give him credit for listening to his critics,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

So let me tell you about the environmental education of then- Gov. Graham. In doing so, I come not to bury Graham, but to praise him.

Re: Sports Illustrated

Kids, you won’t believe this, but before the Pentagon invented the Internet, some people sold these things called “magazines” that were made from dead trees.

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was the magazine’s most popular seller each year. The cover of the 1981 issue featured a Florida picture of supermodel Christie Brinkley.

This would have been a great advertisement for Florida, except that inside the magazine was a powerful piece about how Florida was trying to kill all the natural attributes that made the state special. “The sad fact is that Florida is going down the tube,” the magazine warned. “Indeed, in no state is the environment being wrecked faster and on a larger scale.”

The story quoted a bunch of frustrated environmental activists, one of whom put the blame on Graham. The plainspoken Florida Wildlife Federation president Johnny Jones contended the governor was too busy running for president to do his job (sound familiar?).

“I can’t even get in to talk with him, and I run the biggest conservation organization in Florida,” Jones said. “As a governor, he ain’t got it.”

When the publication hit newsstands, Jones called up a gubernatorial aide named Estus Whitfield and told him to get a copy. Whitfield went to his local newsstand, bought one and brought it with him to Graham’s 7:30 a.m. staff meeting.

“I looked through that magazine as the meeting was going on,” Whitfield told me, “and when it got around to my turn, I said, ‘Governor, I want to show you something. The good news is on the cover, and the bad news is on page 29.’”

Graham read through the story quickly, then told Whitfield to stay after the meeting. Some people might take that as a sign that the boss was ready to take their head off. But that wasn’t Graham’s style.

“He didn’t scream or holler,” Whitfield told me.

Instead, he wanted to talk about what they could do about the Sports Illustrated story. Dave Barry once wrote that Graham had the spontaneity of highway construction, and it’s true. But he moved pretty quickly on this, meeting with critics such as Jones as he looked for ways to build bridges.

The No. 1 Saver

What happened next was a series of events unparalleled in Florida history.

“He did more for the Florida environment than any governor before or since,” said Whitfield, who served as an environmental adviser to Florida governors in both parties.

First, he teamed up with tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett to cofound the Save the Manatee Club, which remains in operation today.

Then came the Save Our Rivers program, which enabled the state’s five water management districts to acquire land to protect water resources. Next came Save Our Coasts, which was aimed at preserving undeveloped coastal areas for public recreation. He worked with lawmakers in both parties to establish them. Those programs preserved thousands of acres of environmentally important land.

If you look at the names, you’ll notice a theme: Save What’s Important for Florida. Graham had become our No. 1 Saver, and not because he found all the BOGOs at Publix.

Not everyone was satisfied with his efforts. Samples told me that at the groundbreaking for a modest restoration project, a stern Marjorie Stoneman Douglas told him, “Not enough, Bob. Not nearly enough.”

But he persisted, broadening his efforts beyond merely buying land. In 1983, he announced an ambitious multibillion-dollar plan called Save Our Everglades. Graham told reporters that the objective was to ensure ”that the Everglades of the year 2000 looks and functions more like it did in 1900 than it does today.”

To make that happen, he said, Florida would need the cooperation of the federal government. Unfortunately, the president then was a former Hollywood actor who didn’t have much use for the environment, perhaps a result of being upstaged in a movie by a monkey named Bonzo.

As a result, we had to wait until 2000, when the non-Hollywood stars finally lined up just right so that both the Florida Legislature and Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program. The sponsor in the U.S. Senate was the gentleman from Florida named Graham.

In the meantime, Whitfield said, Graham launched the restoration of the Kissimmee River, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had converted from a river full of natural bends into a straight, fast ditch. He also ended the sugar companies’ practice of back-pumping polluted water off their fields into Lake Okeechobee.

In the end, though, Graham’s best environmental achievement was one that was remarkably far-sighted and essential. So of course it didn’t last long.

No driver at the wheel

I’m not the first person to point out that Florida’s economy runs like one of Charles Ponzi’s schemes. (Where did Ponzi flee to after his original Boston scam went bust? To Florida, of course, where he got involved in land fraud.)

The way Florida works, in order to keep everything humming along smoothly, we rely on other states sending us a lot of new suck – er, I mean customers. We need those 900 new people a day to buy all the new houses and condos being built. The second that flow stops, our economy grinds to a halt.

But runaway growth is as destructive as a steamroller with no driver at the wheel. If no one is controlling where it hits, it’s liable to destroy lots of important stuff.

Florida had required local governments to prepare land-use plans, but there was no law that said the plan in one place had to match up to the others in the region. Nor was there any rule that required the construction of new roads, sewers, schools, etc. to keep pace with the growth, paid for by that new growth.

Graham cajoled a reluctant Legislature to pass the 1985 Growth Management Act, the most necessary growth law ever written. That law, Samples told me, was crucial in saving the Everglades from the ravages of uncontrolled development.

The new law required all the local comprehensive plans to mesh together with the state’s own plan and be approved by the state itself. That way the planning made something like sense. The law required “concurrency” for all the roads, sewers, etc., so that new growth paid for itself.

The new law also offered enhanced “citizen standing,” meaning you and I had the right to go to court and challenge government land-use decisions that seemed off-base.

Needless to say, folks in the development business preferred the driverless steamroller. They whined and threw money around until they finally got their way in 2011. The gubernatorial candidate they backed, an awkward but wealthy health care executive with no prior government experience, juuuuuuuuuuuuust barely won election.

Then, in the name of boosting our Ponzi scheme economy, he and his allies in the Legislature dismantled the growth management system after a mere 26 years, meanwhile laying waste to the staffs of environment-related agencies.

Graham complained that they had “reversed 40 years of Florida’s progress in water and land conservation.” But the pro-growth gang had taken over for – well, I can’t say “good,” but for the duration.

Runaway development has been spreading sprawl ever since. The sheer number of sewage spills and constant traffic backups should be sufficient proof of the consequences, but there’s more. As WLRN-FM reported in 2022, the shutdown of our growth management system allowed builders to put a lot of people in the path of Hurricane Ian with an inadequate evacuation route.


Graham was no angel, though. He was not always on the side of Florida’s environment.

In the mid-2000s I was working with another reporter on a series of stories about Florida’s rapidly vanishing wetlands. We were documenting how the Corps of Engineers rarely denied any developers’ requests for permits to destroy them.

Developers were in such a rush, though, that they routinely requested Florida’s congressmen and senators contact Corps officials to urge them to hurry up. The politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, were usually happy to oblige, especially when the developer was a campaign donor.

It happened so often that one Corps official told us he’d built a database to keep track, so we put in a Freedom of Information Act request for his database. We saw the names of most of the Florida delegation — including, to our surprise, Graham.

He had recently retired from politics and written a book, so I went to one of his book signings and waited to talk to him.  Instead of sticking around, though, he headed for the men’s room. I tagged along. When he was washing his hands, I asked him about the letters he’d sent on behalf of developers.

“I think the agencies are experienced in what that means — not to change a decision but to request them to review it on a professional and timely basis,” Graham said. He called it a “standard sort of letter” for a constituent. But the permit reviewers told us they saw it as more of a command.

“He’s a complex guy,” Noll said when I recounted this very un-Skink-like anecdote. “More than anything else, he was a politician.”

Of course, that sort of pay-to-play behavior is standard operating procedure for our Florida politicos these days.

What I wish for is a return to the days when the protection of our rivers and coasts seemed more important than letting some out-of-state developer rip them up to make money.

Here are the lessons from Graham’s environmental education: Listen to your critics – they may know what they’re talking about. Build bridges where you can so you can get the job done.

Finally, find a way to save what’s best in natural Florida. It may turn out you’re saving yourself, too.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network 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: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • nellmcphillips

    Oh to have a Governor like this again. Florida has become an environmental disaster of the state’s own making.

    Sunday, April 28 Report this