Helping People

These people are the Everglades’ best friends

South Florida water managers named a new executive director Thursday and vowed to try to better communicate the complicated workings of the 16-county district.
South Florida water managers named a new executive director Thursday and vowed to try to better communicate the complicated workings of the 16-county district. Miami Herald File

Friends of the Everglades is the heavyweight class of grassroots organizations.

The nonprofit, started in 1969 by the fierce environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, advocates for making the Everglades healthy again, and isn’t afraid to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to fight polluters.

Alan Farago, who served as president of Friends and is now the group’s vice president of conservation, says the small but mighty organization is accustomed to and “proud” of its David versus Goliath battles.

“Our legal system still finds a way to give us a voice,” he says, “and our members know that Friends of the Everglades is unafraid of speaking out and joining important legal actions that have implications for national water policy.”

Farago has been an advocate and writer on the environment and Florida politics for the past 30 years. The group tracks local, state, and federal legislation that impacts the Everglades and advocates for lasting conservation measures to restore water quality.

Together with the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, Friends has waged uphill battles in Miami’s federal district courts, all the way to the Supreme Court, to hold entities, including the U.S. government, the Environmental Protection Agency, the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Sugar Corp. accountable for violating the Clean Water Act. The charges range from back-pumping agricultural chemicals from Big Sugar’s plantations into Lake Okeechobee, to not properly treating agricultural chemicals discharged to the Everglades from the Everglades Agricultural Area.

In 2012, after more than two decades of lawsuits brought on by the Miccosukee Tribe against the State of Florida (Friends also joined as a plaintiff in the case), U.S. District Court Judge Alan Gold approved an $880 million Everglades Restoration Plan.

Farago says the verdict was one of the proudest moments in his time with Friends. He stresses how important donations are for the nonprofit so they can hire expert witnesses to testify on behalf of the public’s best interests.

“What people get when they invest in Friends,” says Farago, “is a group that is actively involved in educating citizens and decision makers and also does not shy from litigating and suing government agencies when they fail to do their job.

“What Marjory Stoneman Douglas was best known for was being fierce — a fierce defender of our natural resources,” says Farago. “Friends continues to embody her spirit. We are unafraid of speaking truth to power.”

The group is also in a race against time with a far larger, if not more menacing giant: climate change.

“We derive all of our drinking water in Dade County through drinking water wells at the edge of the Everglades,” says Farago. “Drinking wells are threatened by salt-water intrusion from sea-level rise. Having more fresh water in the Everglades is the best way to protect drinking water wells,” he says.

Friends does more than just protect water, wildlife and habitat in the Everglades. It also provides tens of thousands of Miami-Dade school children with their first exposure to the Everglades habitat through field trips and educational outreach programs. Former Miami-Dade educator Connie Washburn, the current president of Friends, played a large role in getting students more interested in their surrounding natural environment, especially the Everglades, through creating the Young Friends of the Everglades program more than two decades ago.

Though Farago and his wife, Lisa, will be leaving their Coral Gables home to be closer to their children in Los Angeles, he’ll keep his position and will work remotely to keep pushing for lasting conservation measures to restore water quality in the Everglades.

“We can’t bring back the past,” he says, “but we can ensure that public decisions are made in the best interests of all citizens and not just polluters.”

How to help

Friends of the Everglades

(305) 669-0858