Wayne Nelson: An Everglades Warrior Lays Down His Shield

The following editorial about Everglades activist Wayne Nelson was posted to the blog “Eye on Miami” after Nelson’s death last week. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions may be made to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, 10408 West SR 84, Suite 104, Davie, FL 33324.

By gimleteye:

When Wayne Nelson, 88, died this week, the liquid heart of Florida – Lake Okeechobeee – lost a fierce and knowledgeable advocate. Wayne was of a generation of modern-day Everglades activists; including, recently, the late Johnie Jones and his wife, Mariana, who were young in the 1940’s and 1950’s and experienced the Everglades firing on all cylinders.

Wayne was Korea War veteran and a retired air conditioning contractor whose advocacy for Lake Okeechobee led all the way to the US Supreme Court. He began fishing in West Palm Beach and Lake Okeechobee in the 1960’s. He organized one of the first bass fishing clubs in Florida and was the organizer of the small group, Fishermen Against the Destruction of the Environment (FADE) that was a co-plaintiff in federal Clean Water Act litigation challenging the South Florida Water Management District and Big Sugar. Wayne was at the first meeting of the Everglades Coalition at Port of the Islands in 1984 and was once a member of the board of Friends of the Everglades <> (of which I am now president).

Friends of the Everglades, Nelson’s FADE, and other conservation groups brought citizen suits under the Clean Water Act against the US Environmental Protection Agency to require the South Florida Water Management District to obtain permits in order to discharge polluted canal water into Lake Okeechobee. (FADE and Friends of the Everglades have been involved in several federal CWA lawsuits, with important implications for the nation’s water policies, not just the Everglades.)

This practice is known as “back-pumping” and its purpose is to make sure that the 700,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area — dominated by Big Sugar– are never too wet in rainy season. Back-pumping controls water levels on sugar land and through the extensive canal system, forcing water uphill as it were, against gravity, into Lake Okeechobee.

At the same time, the water management practices that deliver immense benefits and profits to sugar barons like the billionaire Fanjuls also deprive the natural system of the rainfall cycle that nourished the Everglades and Florida Bay with clean, fresh water at the right time of year.

He launched his boat in Belle Glade and would fish through the weekend. “To get to the Lake,” Nelson testified in a Friends’ affidavit filed with federal court in 2011, “you have to cross the rim canal and enter the Lake through one of the cuts. I would typically see the pumping while I was going out to fish or coming back in from fishing and was traveling in the rim canal to the boat ramp. You can see the turbulence and tinged color of pumped water all the way across the rim canal and into the Lake.”

Wayne Nelson was a fierce supporter of grass roots environmentalism. His friend, Jim Harvey, says, “If people were classified like naval ships, Wayne Nelson would be the Warrior Class. He never faltered to say it like he saw it. He believed in watching the ass not the lips to ascertain where things were going. You didn’t go fishing with Wayne. He went, listening to him. He loved Lake Okeechobee and held no quarter or gave no quarter when it came to saving the Lake.”

Wayne didn’t seek out the spotlight. He could be cantankerous and prickly. But anyone who loved the Everglades, fought battles against industry pressure, endured endless delays by government, obfuscation, and false declarations of progress while the liquid heart of Florida turned into a sewer would be spewing comets and fury at the misdirection.

“Water transfers of polluted, nutrient-rich water to Lake Okeechobee results in increased nutrient pollution in the Everglades system,”
Nelson said in his affidavit. “Nutrient pollution is one of the biggest threats to the Everglades today. Nitrogen and phosphorous from the canal waters feeds algae growth that chokes out sea grasses and other native plants. Algae also depletes oxygen, resulting in “dead zones” below the the surface where few native Everglades species survive. Invasive flora and fauna are increasingly taking over the niches created by the degredation of the water quality in the Everglades.”

It has been nearly forty years since the historic agreement between the federal government and state of Florida to end the pollution of the Everglades, and its results keep a permanent incumbency in place; from local county commissions, to the state legislature — that still refuses to hold Big Sugar accountable for the costs of its pollution and won’t even impose the most rudimentary system to honestly account for polluting farming practices — to Congress and the White House.

“We don`t need any more studies of Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades,”
Nelson told the Sun Sentinel in 1988. “We know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are. We need action. The farmers are hiding behind (government agencies they control).” (“Lake Okeechobee Scientific Group Back In Business”, Orlando Sentinel, July 14, 1988)

Wayne knew that the environmental warriors were badly outmatched by the Great Destroyers, and he understood the clock was ticking. He didn’t stand for niceties; he wanted environmentalists to do more and he had no tolerance for waving banners. He strongly believed that grass roots organizations were the key. Jim Harvey says, “He was pure passion and “old school” on freedom of speech. He hated equivocation and figured political correctness was being accurate. Period. He was in the truest sense, an egalitarian warrior with little regard for large national environmental groups that danced around to keep the Everglades ball in play.”

Wayne Nelson just wanted to go fishing, and it made him angry that pollution deprived him, Florida and the nation of that opportunity.
Nelson told the Sun Sentinel in 1990: “Reagan missed the boat when he called Russia the Evil Empire”. Thrusting a finger toward the sugar cane farms ringing Lake Okeechobee, he said, “I’ll tell you where the goddamn Evil Empire is… it’s out there!” (A Sweet Deal Has Become The Source Of A Bitter Poison, The Sugar Dynasty, Sept. 16, 1990) And it still is.

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3 Responses to Wayne Nelson: An Everglades Warrior Lays Down His Shield

  1. Larry Fink says:

    A Tribute to Wayne Nelson
    by Larry E. Fink, M.S., Waterwise Consulting, LLC
    05/11/12

    I had no personal relationship with Wayne Nelson. I only knew Wayne Nelson through his presentations to the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his intellect, respected his commitment to Lake Okeechobee restoration and protection, and applauded his healthy skepticism of the information being supplied by and promises being made by Federal, Florida, and local government agencies regarding his beloved lake.

    In that context, I came across a videotape* of a toxic substances workshop conducted by Federal, Florida, and District staffs for the SFWMD Governing Board on 6/12/96. I was one of the six presenters at that workshop. During the public comment period that followed, Wayne Nelson entered the lists, stood imposingly at the lectern, and then spoke about the overuse and dangers of pesticides in general and the overuse of herbicides for undesirable vegetation management by SFWMD in Lake Okeechobee in particular. He spoke accurately, concisely, eloquently and compellingly on these subjects. Then he closed on a personal note that the Lake Okeechobee fisherman who claimed he had been accidentally sprayed by SFWMD herbicide spray crew was still waiting to hear from the District regarding its investigation into the matter and the apology he deserved for his pain and suffering. He did all this in less than 6 minutes.

    I have a formal education in chemistry and environmental chemistry and, at that time, nearly 20 years of Federal, state, and local agency professional experience in assessing the sources, transport, fate, bioaccumulation, and effects of pesticides, and I couldn’t have improved on his choice of examples, the accuracy of his characterizations of the risks associated with each example, or any of his findings, conclusions, or recommendations, including and especially his recommendation to cease the use of 2,4,-D for in-lake weed control. Truth be told, I doubt if I could have covered as much relevant material as effectively in just 6 minutes. It was a tour de force by a true maestro at the peak of his powers and passion in complete command and control of the situation.

    We need more Wayne Nelsons to fight the good fight and keep the government honest, and we are all diminished by his passing. My sincerest condolences to his family and friends. However, the best way to honor a fallen soldier is to continue his fight. Unfortunately, I doubt if any one man or woman can replace him or should try. Nevertheless, the next time a government agency tries to give you the runaround or feed you a line, give ’em a dose of Wayne Nelson, and he will take a break from fishing in the Big Water in the sky, look down approvingly on the righteous confrontation, and smile.

  2. jim h says:

    Jim, sorry I haven’t responded earlier. Any of us who were lucky enough to get Wayne’s late night calls came to learn that beneath the show of cynicism and disappointment was a love for the Lake so real and strong that Wayne never stopped looking for hope and for allies. There was something Wayne shared with George Barley — every time you talked with him, the depth and urgency of his need to win for the glades came through. Thank you, Jim, for helping people get it straight. about Wayne… Joe

    Joe Browder | Dunlap & Browder

  3. Guy Harvey says:

    From Wayne’s friends, Joette and Terry Rice:

    Wayne was our friend, and Joette and I were two of his biggest fans … we will miss him terribly … life without a weekly call from Wayne, which was neither short nor lacking in drama, will never be the same … not being able to meet him for lunch at Lightsey’s on Okeechobee for fried catfish seems surreal … and our non-fiction, very serious reading, and DVD collections will suffer greatly without the steady infusion of material from Wayne … we will certainly miss the fishing trips with Wayne as guide; he was kind to pass down his beloved fly fishing manual, and bream rod and reel to Joette last year on his birthday and he incessantly talked about fishing for bream with us this year… for his friends, he leaves a huge hole on this earth that simply cannot be filled.

    Wayne was one of a kind and a real environmentalist for whom we hold the utmost respect … he had the rare ability to understand who and what was right without wasted effort … you couldn’t fool Wayne … he always spoke truth to power … his poignant aphorisms are legendary … our favorite was (paraphrased): “if you really want to know what a man’s intentions are, don’t listen to his mouth … watch his ass” … and, even more important, he had the undaunted courage to always do whatever he could do to ensure the right thing was done. Hopefully someone will emerge with his talent, boldness, and conviction, but, if not, Wayne’s beloved Lake Okeechobee will become defenseless without its greatest advocate.

    Wayne was blessed with many laudable virtues … his selfless dedication, sage counsel, courage, and unwavering loyalty are examples for all to emulate as we continue our work on earth.

    All Wayne’s friends know that his unparalleled faith secures his life eternal … it sure has been a blessing for us to be a part of his life while he was here, but it is time to let go … and, we can say, without the slightest reservation, what one day we hope they will say about us: Well done Wayne, you did much more than your part; be thou at peace. Thank you, we will always love you, and you will always be a part of us.

    Terry L. Rice
    Colonel (Ret’d), PhD, PE
    Stuart, FL

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