Famed photographer Clyde Butcher wants to save Florida’s natural beauty — and wants you to help

Renowned photographer Clyde Butcher is probably best known for his dramatic black-and-white landscape shots of the Everglades and other striking scenes of Florida’s natural beauty.

The stills have won awards and been displayed at galleries around the country.

Butcher has traveled, too, spending the past three decades promoting Florida’s wilderness — and its protection — at every turn.

Now, he says he is worried that much of it is in danger.

Citing water quality issues, over-development and increasing human population, the 76-year-old Florida resident says the outlook for the state’s environment is not good.

Butcher spoke with the Bradenton Herald about the future of Florida, the state of state politics and his latest efforts to document unspoiled landscapes while they still exist.

Here’s what he had to say.

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Clyde Butcher photographs Florida’s natural landscapes exclusively on black and white film. Clyde Butcher Provided photo

What are your top concerns for Florida’s environment?

Water quality. Global warming. We should be having some program for solar. Most states that are vulnerable to the ocean have programs to get people on solar power. At the least they could get government buildings on solar power.

It sounds like (Gov. Ron DeSantis) is doing some of the right things. It’s just that he doesn’t have the money to do them. Where’s the money going to come from? That’s what I’m concerned about.

It’s basically an issue of taxes. We don’t have enough taxes. We need to raise the gasoline tax and the sales tax. I don’t understand how we’re going to have all these new people coming in and not raise taxes. ...

This whole thing obviously is political.

I just talked to an old friend who records all of the meetings up in Tallahassee. It’s his job. And he says these people in our legislature are idiots. How are we going to get people that are educated in there?

A lot of them are just good old boys from the panhandle that everybody likes. The panhandle is running Florida. And they don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the state because they don’t have all of the issues we do. I just don’t know how we’re going to solve all of these problems with idiots running the state.

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The ghost orchid, a rare plant native to the swamps of South Florida. Clyde Butcher Provided photo

What are some potential solutions, in your opinion?

It’s almost to the point that it’s too late right now. Florida Power and Light is planning to install millions of solar panels, but that’s probably not even taking care of all of the new people coming in.

There are solutions out there.

One is thorium salt reactors for energy production. That’s the only solution to power in our world, and nobody wants to talk about it. Particularly the environmentalists, because it includes the word radiation. But there’s no other way we’re going to have enough power to run everything.

And (President Donald Trump) is making new regulations where we’re going to support coal again now. Which is really good, you know. It kills people. Not to mention the global warming.

Unfortunately most of the environmental problems are government-made.

What do you see as a path forward on those government-related issues?

I think the only way to do it is government mandates. For example, in California now, if you build a new house, you have to put solar on it. You have no choice. The government is making a decision to help the situation.

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A traveling exhibition of Clyde Butcher’s photos of the Everglades. Photo courtesy of Clyde Butcher

This is what we should be working toward. They could create a law that FPL has to put solar panels on homes. And they pay for it and then charge the customers for it, a monthly fee.

We are completely off the grid at our house.

Was that a difficult process?

No. ... It’s not difficult. It just takes money, and you can finance it.

And that’s what we have to start doing in Florida. Say that we want clean water. Then we’re going to have to pay for it.

How about red tide?

We’re planning on probably getting out of here this summer because we can’t handle the red tide.

It’s going to get worse and worse. It’s not getting better.

The thing that government tries to do is say, ‘Oh, we’ll research that.’

It won’t have any impact, because they’ve had serious research on this for decades. Starting in 1989. And they’ve already discovered what causes it. ... It’s nothing new.

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Shell Key Preserve, a nature preserve at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Clyde Butcher Provided photo

Have you encountered any positive examples of environmental stewardship in Florida?

What they’ve done on the Kissimmee River.

It’s the No. 1 restoration project in the world, and nobody knows about it. I guess because (Gov. Jeb Bush) is the one who really put that through. The water going into Lake Okeechobee now is a lot cleaner than it was before.

The problem is that the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee now should go into a swamp like it does in the Kissimmee. They have to buy 50,000 acres on each side of the state and make a marsh. A marsh is the only way you can clean the stuff.

You have to start at the beginning, where Lake Okeechobee dumps into the Caloosahatchee River. Just north of LaBelle, you need to have a great, big, giant marsh. You need to take the river and push it in. You need to get rid of the Caloosahatchee River as it is now and put it back the way it used to be. That’s what they did in Kissimmee. The channel isn’t there anymore, it’s gone. When it’s dry season, you can find the river, and when it’s wet season you can’t find the river. It’s all one big marsh. All the birds are going there now, too. There were 40,000 birds there, last count. Because there’s food there now because of the marsh. So that’s a simple way to do it.

I’ve talked to the colonel that’s supposed to be in charge of this thing, and all of these people think you can just build a big hole and hold the water and then dump the bad water slowly. That’s stupid. It’s the cheapest way. It might solve it temporarily. But Lake Okeechobee is so polluted that there’s no way of solving it other than having a marsh. And you’re figuring a couple billion dollars each coast, so you have to raise taxes to get the couple billion dollars.

People need to know more about what happened in Kissimmee. We had the cooperation of the Army Corps of Engineers, the cattle people, the Air Force, the ranchers and the residents. Everybody cooperated to solve that problem.

Things can be done. Things should be done. On both the east coast and the west coast. And they know what will happen if they don’t. It happened last summer really bad.

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Gannet Strand, a swamp near Big Cypress National Preserve. Clyde Butcher Provided photo

What did you think of the toll roads bill passing? It got a lot of resistance from environmental groups.

I think it’s more money for the corporate structure. We’re in a fascist state right now. Corporations run the country. That’s fascism.

What can the average person do to help combat environmental issues?

I can’t do anything besides get information out that we have to raise taxes so we have money to solve these problems.

You’ve got to vote. And you’ve got to start voting for politicians that will raise your taxes. And how many people will do that?

For example, the gas tax hasn’t risen for decades. And the thing is that we’re buying less gas because we’re getting better gas mileage. The last two months I think I’ve spent $14 on gas, because I have a Chevrolet Volt. Everyone should get one of those.

But how many people buy $50,000 pick-ups? You could buy a Tesla for $40,000. That’s a sharp car.

It’s not something where I can say: People, pick up garbage. Do this, do that. That’s good, but it won’t solve these problems.

I think they’ve made incandescent light bulbs illegal now. That helps.

But what we need to do is vote for the people who are intelligent. Not Democrats, not Republicans. Party should not make any difference. It’s the people. I know Republicans that are great environmentalists. They’re probably better than a lot of environmentalists. A lot of environmentalists talk the talk, but they don’t do anything.

I was in Yosemite, photographing Half Dome. I was there for about two hours. There was a guy next to me shooting on a digital camera. Usually digital people are shoot-and-go. And he was there as long as I was. So I started talking talking to him and asked, ‘What do you do? What kind of person are you that wants to sit here for two hours waiting for the sun?’

And he told me that he was the biggest coal lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

And he said, ‘Our biggest allies in the government are the environmentalists. If there wasn’t a Sierra Club, we would invent one.’

For instance, the idea of thorium reactors — Sierra Club is completely down on it. They don’t understand. How many people are going to give up their iPhones? Their computers?

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The Loosescrew Swamp Sanctuary is the back half of Clyde and Niki Butcher’s property in Big Cypress National Preserve. Clyde Butcher Provided photo

What differences have you noticed in Florida’s natural areas since you started photographing them in the 1980s?

Some have actually gotten better. The Kissimmee is fantastic compared to what it was. The Big Cypress National Preserve is getting better because they’ve blocked some of the drainage canals so it goes back to the marshes.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Everglades National Park because they’re putting these bridges in to get more flow. But is that going to bring in more bad water and make things worse?

Have you ever considered photographing the destruction of the state’s natural areas to send a message?

No, not the destruction. I don’t do that. I do things that are positive. ... The negative stuff is for newspapers to put out there.

What are you working on lately?

Photographing springs.

Orlando, Gainesville, Ocala.

They’re destroying the springs one after another in Florida.

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Clyde Butcher will go anywhere for a good photo, including wading into the Santa Fe River. Photo courtesy of Clyde Butcher

What will people see at your new gallery in St. Armands Circle in Sarasota?

We’re expanding more of (wife) Niki’s work there. She hand paints black-and-white photographs with color.

What are your favorite places to get outdoors in the Bradenton-Sarasota area?

Of course, Myakka. That’s my backyard now. It’s my favorite; we did a whole show on Myakka.

And there are some nice areas in the southern part of Venice. Nice beaches where there are not cars allowed.

The prettiest thing I’ve seen so far in Florida is where the Santa Fe River meets the Suwanee River. From the Suwanee back about six miles is old-growth cypress. I measured one there was 53 feet in circumference. The largest redwood tree is 43 feet. I mean, that’s a tree.

Florida’s got all kinds of things. It’s the most versatile state that I’ve ever photographed. I’ve been all over the United States.

Find out more about Clyde’s work at clydebutcher.com.

Ryan Ballogg covers arts, entertainment, dining, breaking and local news for the Bradenton Herald. He has won awards for feature writing and environmental writing in the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism Competition. Ryan is a Florida native and graduated from University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
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