Miami-Dade County

Miami’s oldest environmental group marks 100 years in the trenches

A great white heron was among the birds spotted on a 2014 bird-watching tour organized by Tropical Audubon that featured the release of a recovered pelican at Biscayne National Park.
A great white heron was among the birds spotted on a 2014 bird-watching tour organized by Tropical Audubon that featured the release of a recovered pelican at Biscayne National Park. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

If there is a David in Miami, a city of Goliaths, it is Tropical Audubon.

The scrappy South Miami environmental group, which this month marked a century of advocating for birds and butterflies and bats, for fragile bays, dwindling wetlands and safe drinking water, says it operates on a budget of just $300,000 with a full-time staff of two. Three part-timers fill out the roster and, if they’re lucky, three interns. Yet the nonprofit has at times stood up to some outsized opponents including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Power & Light and Miami-Dade County.

Look around South Florida and the group’s handiwork can be felt from the swamps to the coast, over a lifetime that started less than 20 years after Miami was founded in the buggy hammocks in between.

“We have had a long history [of attacks on the environment]. Unfortunately, we still got some. So I hope they keep standing up,” said historian Arva Moore Parks.

Voted into being in the auditorium of an elementary school in 1916, the Coconut Grove Audubon Society paved the way for Everglades National Park. Decades later, the renamed Tropical Audubon Society helped stop an ill-conceived city from developing a string of emerald keys in Biscayne Bay.

Bird nerds they are not. The organization sees its mission as conserving and restoring South Florida’s ecosystems — which face near constant pressure from surrounding development — regardless of the enemy, whether builders, politicians or university presidents. Yet they still take their job of fostering new environmental stewards seriously, with bird-watching hikes and kayaking tours, said Laura Reynolds, who joined the group in 2004 and became its executive director in 2009.

“Sometimes it takes seeing a bird through binoculars or going out on a kayak to realize that Miami is more than pavement,” she said.

And if there’s an environmental cause in need of shelter — that includes high school clubs or neighbors fighting a mall — the group will throw open its South Miami headquarters, the house of early pharmacist Arden Hayes “Doc” Thomas, free of charge, Reynolds said.

“That venue helps the environmental causes,” she said, listing off a who’s who of causes launched within its tidewater red-cypress walls, including the Everglades Coalition 30 years ago and Hold The Line, a campaign to stop development outside the county urban development boundary.

“All that stuff started in that very room in the Doc Thomas house. So it’s a pretty powerful place,” she said.

When the national Audubon Society was formed in 1896, Florida was simmering with environmental outrage. Wintering water birds had been nearly wiped out by the plumage trade, spurring Kirk Munroe to help found Florida Audubon in the Grove in 1900. Within a year, groups that had formed around the country helped push through the creation of the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island.

Fifteen years later, Munroe’s wife, Mary Barr Munroe, an even more fierce advocate, took over as president of Audubon’s first South Florida chapter in 1915.

“Mary was the one who really started the whole emphasis on Everglades National Park,” Parks said. “Small groups can make a big difference. When’s the last time you saw egret plume on a hat?”

In modern times, the organization has focused its efforts largely on fighting to keep or restore dwindling land needed for wildlife. The battles can be complex and involve big bureaucracies such as the Corps or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Often that means untangling dense reports on saltwater intrusion, hydrology or the perils of climate change. The group helped persuade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa to take on climate change two years ago when it looked like efforts were stalling to create stronger measures to protect the county from rising sea level and saltwater intrusion. This year, Sosa sponsored a series of resolutions.

“If we’re going to talk about nonprofit organizations that have made significant and credible changes, we have to talk about them,” said Sosa, who was given the group’s government award this year at a centennial celebration, even though she sometimes sides with the opposition. “I like nature and development to co-exist and one not to hurt the other. I don’t like extremes.”

But for all its fighting, the group has struggled to raise money, a problem board member Elizabeth Smith, a former wine magazine publisher, has been working to change.

“Communications, marketing and PR are all in my toolbox and they had none of that. They were underfunded and understaffed and Laura was doing it all, trying to stick her finger in all the holes in the dike,” Smith said.

So Smith helped spruce up the house and three-acre grounds that include a chickee and began hosting concerts and dinners and hauling in food trucks. Its website is being overhauled. Smith said that the group also is working hard to bring unlikely partners into the fold, including rock miners and farmers — industries both blamed for polluting water — on the issue of climate change.

“It’s a totally new dynamic in terms of banding together and a rising tide floats more boats, literally,” she said.

Tropical Audubon is currently challenging the expansion of FPL’s Turkey Point plant, an issue that Reynolds describes as the most important and difficult the group has faced, and which she and other critics, including Miami-Dade County and the mayors from three neighboring cities, say threatens South Florida’s drinking water. The utility wants to add two more nuclear reactors to two now operating on the border of Biscayne National Park. The state has already approved the expansion. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission signs off, the plant would needs millions of gallons of water, potentially making it the largest consumer of water in the state.

“It’s been going on since 2008 and the reason it’s so hard is because you can’t see it. You can’t see it because it’s underground and nobody understands how huge the issue is,” Reynolds said.

The group also has appealed a new state management plan for operating the plant’s troubled cooling canals, adding to other ongoing and expensive legal battles that include the dredge of Government Cut.

The group also monitors restoration of the southern Everglades, requiring Reynolds to appear almost monthly at the South Florida Water Management District’s West Palm Beach meetings. In recent months, efforts have focused on the purchase of thousands of acres of U.S. Sugar land using money from a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly supported by voters in November.

The district, the governor and state lawmakers have so far failed to act on the purchase, part of a deal that expires in October. The division has set off a contentious fight now playing out in Tallahassee and across the state, with environmentalists hauling out bottles of blue sludge collected from polluted waterways near Lake Okeechobee.

“What people need to understand is we bridge the gap between science and policy,” said Reynolds. “If we weren’t here, some of this stuff would go unnoticed and unchecked.”

Related stories from Miami Herald