Friends of the Everglades, a National Park Service partner of 40 years standing, is going through some tough times and must now regroup and rebuild. There’ll be tough sledding ahead for the venerable NGO, but nobody’s ready to panic.
When conservationist superstar Marjory Stoneman Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades back in 1969, a main purpose being to fight a proposed jetport that threatened the sanctity of Everglades National Park, environmental activists rallied to the cause and swelled the organization’s ranks. The Kissimmee/Okeechobee/Everglades ecosystem was clearly under assault from a wide variety of serious threats, and Friends of the Everglades was seen as just the sort of instrument needed to defend and restore it.
In the organization’s own words:
Our Mission is to preserve, protect, and restore the only Everglades in the world.
• Compel government agencies to comply with existing environmental laws, and resist any efforts to weaken such laws
• Encourage politicians to recognize the long consequences of their actions.
• Spread awareness of the importance to the South Florida ecosystem.
Things worked out pretty well for Friends in its first 30 years or so of existence. It deservedly drew plenty of praise and lots of national attention for defeating the jetport proposal and helping to fend off threats to the Everglades ecosystem and Lake Okeechobee posed by water diversion, agricultural runoff and other pollutants, the westward sprawl of greater Miami, and related activities. Though Friends has strongly criticized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (on grounds that it fails to adequately address many critical needs), it endorses the CERP’s broadly stated goal of restoring the Everglades ecosystem to something approximating natural functioning.
As anybody familiar with the organization’s hard-fought battles with the South Florida Water Management District and federal agencies can tell you, this NGO hasn’t shrunk from doing legal battle and has become very good at it. In the last decade Friends has filed or joined in at least ten lawsuits against the Federal government alone.
While the organization is best known for its legal actions in behalf of the Everglades, it has made important contributions of many types. Encouraging public awareness and participation in environmental issues is an important aspect of the Friends mission, and promoting environmental education in the Dade County public school system has been a pet cause. The organization’s Young Friends of the Everglades program is well run and very effective.
When Marjory Stoneman Douglas stepped down, she turned the Friends reins over to very capable leaders. One who played an especially vital role was Miami Herald environmental reporter Juanita Greene, who took over as Friends president and later served as conservation chair. (If you watched Ken Burns’ national parks documentary, you may recall that Ms. Greene not only championed Everglades causes, but also played an instrumental role in getting Biscayne National Park established.)
In its heyday, Friends of the Everglades attracted a lot of people and a lot of money. The NGO’s paid membership eventually topped out at about 4,000 and it had an operating budget of around $100,000. That’s a support base that many friends organizations would love to have. By 1994, Friends was operating out of an office in Miami, had two part-time employees (an administrator and a clerk), and seemed fated for bigger and better things.
But things have not been going well for Friends lately. Tough economic times have badly eroded the organization’s base of support. Paid membership has declined precipitously, reportedly to around 500. Revenues have fallen sharply as well, even though legal expenses and other costs create ever more pressing financial needs. The Miami office was recently closed, and the paid staff is down to one part-time clerk. To make things even worse, Juanita Greene recently retired and moved to Tallahassee to be nearer to her daughter, vacating her key position as Conservation Chair/First Vice President.
The organization is left with no choice but to regroup and rebuild. Acting president Connie Washburn has expressed confidence that this can be done well, albeit not quickly and easily. Good leadership is a vital component of the process, so it’s good to see that Juanita Greene’s replacement as conservation chair is Alan Farago, a lifelong activist with a strong environmental track record and a good feel for the South Florida political and environmental scenes. He and the other members of the Board of Directors can be expected to work very hard (and hopefully very effectively) to expand membership and boost the revenue stream.
Time will tell whether Friends of the Everglades can restore the membership levels and revenue stream that it enjoyed in its heyday. If you believe in this organization’s mission, you should fervently hope so.
Postscript: Friends of the Everglades founder Marjory Stoneman Douglas, daughter of Miami Herald founder Frank Stoneman, authored the influential book The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947. She died in 1998 at age 108 and her ashes were scattered in the Everglades.