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Think Florida has a ‘grassroots’ environmental movement? Think again

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A casual observer could think there is a groundswell of grassroots organizations throughout South Florida, each fighting to preserve the Sunshine State’s unique environment.

Not so.

Upon closer examination, Chris Leggatt of the Daily Broward uncovered a “shadowy organization” working to manipulate both citizens and the government through a number of advocacy groups, exerting its own “twisted” agenda under a banner of saving Florida’s environment.

It is an example of manufactured grassroots outrage – a strategy known as “astroturfing” – that misdirects from its true motives.

“If it were in the movies,” Leggatt writes, “it might be exciting; but in real life, it would be unscrupulous and unacceptable.”

The Everglades Foundation — led by hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones — has contributed over $6 million since 2009 to groups promoting an “anti-sugar” agenda – often employing duplicitous language and policy demands.

There is a long list of groups that are essentially fronts for The Everglades Foundation, including the Clean Water Fund of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Fund, and Tropical Audubon Society, among others.

Some have dramatic names like “Friends of Florida” and “Defenders of Wildlife.”

What all of these organizations have in common is that they come from a single source, The Everglades Foundation, which directly provides much of their operating budgets.

Even established groups such as Audubon of Florida and Everglades Law Center have close ties to the Foundation, which Leggett calls “wholly owned subsidiaries” with nearly three-quarters of their operating budgets consisting of Everglades Foundation money.

For example, Leggett claims 98 percent of Audubon of Florida’s 2009 operating revenue came from the Everglades Foundation.

“Like a pair of octopi,” he adds, “The Everglades Foundation and the Everglades Trust use their ‘arms’ (organizations that receive funds) to advocate for various issues, manipulating the media by offering up quotes and outrage from numerous ‘organizations’ as ‘sources.’”

Although the Everglades Foundation and Everglades Trust appear – on the surface – as two separate and independent organizations, they both share leadership and top personnel.

For example, Foundation CEO Erik Eikenberg also serves as a board member of the Everglades Trust.  Kirk Fordham, a former CEO of the Everglades Foundation, is also an Everglades Trust board member. Mary Barley, the wife of Everglades Foundation creator George Barley, has been both chairman and vice chair of the Everglades Foundation; she is now president and treasurer of the Everglades Trust.

The main takeaway is that the two environmental heavyweights serve to create an echo chamber against a single target – U.S. Sugar Corp.

Everglades Trust and The Everglades Foundation, joined by the various groups they bankroll, attempted to pressure the Florida Legislature into purchasing lands owned by the U.S. Sugar Corp. If successful, it would have been a costly and ineffective move, taken under the guise of conservation. Part of the attempt included an aggressive mail campaign attacking several current Florida representatives.

Although the effort ultimately failed, the movement is starting once again for 2016.

U.S. Sugar Corp., as well as other sugar farmers, are again under attack for simply using state-sanctioned harvesting methods. A new campaign seeks to frighten Florida residents (and voters) with images of fires and doom, combined with threats of pollution and toxic gas.

The ultimate goal of this faux network is to shut down a particular agricultural business, despite it being in compliance with all state and federal environmental regulations.

This comes as Palm Beach County, home of most of the state’s sugarcane fields, measures some of the best air quality in Florida.

Jacob Engels, publisher of the East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post, puts interbreeding of environmental groups in context.

“It’s time for Floridians to realize that these groups are less focused on “protecting the environment” and more focused on creating scenarios that allow them to continue collecting contributions to fund luxury office spaces and six-figure consulting contracts,” Engels writes.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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