Everglades Eco-Activist Mary Barley
When developer George Barley died in a fiery air crash at Orlando Executive Airport June 23, there were those who thought the Everglades and Florida Bay had died with him.A ferocious campaigner with connections throughout the state and national business and political communities, Barley was clearly impossible to replace in the battle against the sugar industry and other polluters. His contributions to the campaign to save the ecology of South Florida were immense, his energy irreplaceable.But those who thought the fight against Big Sugar died with George Barley overlooked one big factor -- Mary.Indeed, in the wake of George's loss, Mary Barley has become one of America's most influential eco-activists. And -- thanks in part to the chaos in Washington -- the campaign that thrust her and her late husband into the headlines is now at a surprising critical juncture, with a serious chance for some major victories.George M. Barley, Jr., 61, was unique in Florida environmental history. A seventh-generation Floridian, he was, in Mary's words, "a smart, small-town boy" from Winter Garden.After graduating from Harvard on scholarship, George embarked on a successful developer's career with projects all over Central Florida. An avid sport fisherman, he began frequenting the Keys in the 1950s, eventually becoming a close confidant of another sport fisherman, George Bush. When Bush moved to the White House, Barley joined his "kitchen cabinet," advising the Republican president on the marine ecology.It wasn't all tarpon and snook. A seagrass die-off was noted in 1987, followed by the spread of a massive algae bloom, now the size of Rhode Island, that began turning the Bay into an underwater Sahara. The shallow, briny marine paradise was choking on heat, salt, and the algae. Huge stretches of sea grass were suffocating, and with them myriad forms of aquatic life. The bloom even seeped through to the Atlantic, blocking out the sun and turning North America's only coral reefs in a dying range of bleached corpses.When the Barleys looked for answers, they found them a hundred miles north -- in the cane fields above the Everglades. "We called together all the scientists who were researching the problem and asked them to list the 10 most serious threats to the ecology of the Florida Bay," recalls Mary. "They all put restoring the fresh-water flow at the top. But they all did it in private."At first the idea seemed far- fetched. "Most people had concluded that the chief culprit was runoff from the sewage systems in the Keys," says Mary. "And that's certainly a problem. But it's not what's killing the Bay."Instead, the scientists pointed their finger at the sugar plantations at the base of Lake Okeechobee, which take the water flowing south and trap it in their cane fields, adding lethal doses of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Most of the water is then shunted to South Florida developments, or into the Atlantic by a series of canals dug over the decades by the Army Corps of Engineers.In 1992 University of Virginia scientist Joe Zieman confirmed that the "curtailment of the historic waterflow into Florida Bay from the Everglades" was at the root of the disaster. "It is not possible to overemphasize or exaggerate the need for more water. It is the key to everything."Indeed, the natural on-rush of water south from Okeechobee through the Everglades and into the bay is the ecological lifeblood of the entire region. The water keeps alive the Everglades, which filter it as the flow passes to the Bay. There it mixes with salt water from the Gulf, creating its uniquely fecund briny estuary -- and the basis for the tourism and sport and commercial fishing industries that give much of South Florida its economic life.Until the report by Zieman, a professor of environmental sciences, the scientists "all knew what was wrong," says Mary, "but nobody was willing to come out with it." Once Zieman did, "five or six others came on board, and that's what really started it," she says. "That's when everybody began looking at the big picture."Zieman and some of those scientists paid a heavy price. "It's amazing how funding dries up and grants disappear," says Joe Browder, a long-time Everglades activists now working as a consultant in Washington. "Interest in renewed funding wanes if people do honest science."The Barleys met similar brick walls. "George thought it would be easy," says Mary wryly. "Once we realized the sugar industry was the problem, we thought all we'd have to do was to inform the politicians in Tallahassee and Washington and get it straightened out."Notwithstanding their friendship with Bush, the Barleys had long hobnobbed with Democrats Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, and Buddy McKay. "We thought it would be a done deal," Mary recalls. "We went in and said, 'They're the polluters, they've got our money, they should pay to clean up this mess.'"But politicians of both parties, who have reaped millions over the years from the sugar growers, told the Barleys to "forget about the morality of it" and "just go away."That, says Mary, "was the end of our rose-colored glasses. Off we were."George and Mary Barley brought a new dimension to the drive to save the South Florida ecosystem. "They transformed it," says Charles Lee of Florida Audubon. "They took something that was the sole province of environmental organizations such as ours and convinced major business interests to come to the table and stand up for the preservation of the Everglades."While bringing in financial help from themselves and their contacts, the Barleys also lent the movement some much-needed business savvy. They formed four separate Everglades organizations: one for promoting a referendum, one for lobbying, one for public education, and another for endorsing candidates.George also brought his blunt, forceful public persona and can-do approach to the Everglades Coalition, the umbrella organization embracing most of the groups fighting to save the bio-region. "His style was to call on the phone and say, 'You don't know me, and I don't know you, but we need to talk,'" says Joe Browder. "He did not beat around the bush. He did not take 'no' for an answer.""George didn't mince words, either with the politicians or with people inside the movement" says Joette Lorion, a Miami-based activist now working for the Miccosukee Indian tribe. "He could cut right to the core of an issue, and he was great at doing that in public. The polluters really feared him."For good reason. In May 1994, Save Our Everglades Inc., completed a $1 million drive to gather some 600,000 signatures aimed at putting on the ballot a 1-cent per pound tax on sugar. The tax would raise several hundred million dollars to buy land and reconfigure South Florida's canal system to restore the flow of clean, fresh water through the Everglades and into the Bay. Polls at the time showed Floridians overwhelmingly supportive.But the Florida Supreme Court knocked the measure off the ballot. And Big Sugar mounted a massive drive to bar such assessments in the future. The tax, said Bob Buker of U.S. Sugar, "was supported by people with no morals." George Barley, he added, "would have put us out of business. When you're faced with going out of business, you do whatever you can."According to official reports, the crash that killed George Barley last summer was due to the failure of one of the charter plane's two prop engines. As it went down, its pilot, Mark Swade, 32, heroically steered the small craft away from a crowded day care center. But Swade's four young sons, and Barley's three grown daughters from a previous marriage, were left without their fathers.Mary Barley was left without her "friend, lover, and partner" of more than 20 years. And the movement to which her husband had contributed so much was left wondering how to pick up the pieces.But, says Browder, "from just a few hours after we all found out about George's death, Mary was telling everybody how she was going to keep going. Anyone who knew them both knew Mary was always there as a real partner. The force of George's personality almost always made him appear to be the brightest sun in the system, but Mary was always as energetic and active as George." "Mary has expanded her contacts, and the effectiveness of the Everglades preservation movement," adds Charles Lee, who has worked with the Barleys for a decade. "Her personal style is different than George's, a little softer, without as much of a hard edge. The campaign has certainly grown under her leadership."Moreover, in the wake of George's death, Mary co-founded the Committee to Ensure Florida's Economic and Environmental Future, a non-partisan coalition urging Congress to impose a new tax -- this time, two cents per pound of sugar grown in the Everglades -- to primarily purchase land that would be used for water storage and purification. The fact that it has not proven an easy sell has only increased Mary's determination to see it through.At first glance, Mary Barley hardly appears as a woman at war with some of America's biggest corporations. A charming, high-spirited Wisconsin native who favors blue jeans and sport fishing, Mary came to Florida in 1970. At the time, "I was married to a guy working in real estate," she explains. "He hated Florida. I loved it. So, when he was ready to go, I just said, 'good-bye.'"Born in 1946, she was the third of five children raised by a single working mother in Oconto, 30 miles north of Green Bay. Mary found Florida an oasis. "My mother worked as a cleaning lady in a nursing home," she says. "She really struggled. I was too poor to go to college."In the early '70s Mary went to work as assistant to the secretary of George Barley, a rising Orlando developer. Then she "went off to work somewhere else" and didn't see him again for two years, until they started dating. While George's holdings took off, Mary worked full time for Florida Information Systems, a computer center for savings and loans. She also studied business at Valencia Community College, from which she graduated with honors.But as the couple swung into environmental action, Mary worked "behind the scenes, back there running the office. We consulted and conferred a thousand times a day."What they conferred about mostly was curbing the power of Big Sugar. For 60 years, Florida's millionaire sugar barons have been funneling huge sums of money to politicians of all stripes. In turn those politicians have delivered taxpayer subsidies that keep cane growing where it otherwise might not.And while sugar spends millions battling any talk of a tax, it simultaneously relies on a federal subsidy to keep it going, forcing American consumers to pay double the world price.The program is simple: about $90 million in taxpayer money administers a series of low-interest loans and import quotas on sugar. This massive dose of corporate welfare forces U.S. shoppers to pay about 22.5 cents per pound of sugar, nearly double the 11.75 cents paid elsewhere around the world. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office, this means American consumers pay about $1.4 billion extra per year for sugar, though some estimates put the charge at closer to $3 billion.Much of that goes to growers like Bob Buker's U.S. Sugar and to Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul of Flo-Sun.The Fanjuls are quintessential sugar barons. They fled Castro's Cuba as the revolution took hold, but have maintained Spanish citizenship to reduce their U.S. taxation. Pepe is a major Republican donor, while Alfonso supports the Democrats and counts Bill Clinton as a personal friend. Overall the Fanjuls lead an industry that has lived off the federal dole since the 1930s, and that has developed what many analysts consider the best PR and PAC operation in the nation. And with their combined 550,000 acres of cane fields between Okeechobee and the 'glades, no national or Florida politician can ignore their sugar machine.But sugar beet and corn growers throughout the Midwest also benefit from the subsidy -- especially Archer-Daniels- Midland and its notorious chief, Dwayne Andreas. ADM also is one of Bob Dole's chief financial sugar daddies. But like the Fanjuls, Andreas hedges his bets, slipping millions to the Democrats and cultivating a donation-laden friendship of his own with Bill Clinton.Andreas profits to the tune of some $300 million a year from corn sweeteners, whose price stays high because of sugar quotas. In fact, while it's generally estimated that the Fanjuls benefit to the tune of some $50 million per year, the subsidy may well be worth three times that or more to Andreas and the Midwestern corn and beet barons who don't grow cane but whose prices for sweeteners stay high because sugar prices stay high."The irony of the subsidy," says Lorion, "is that as powerful as Big Sugar is in Florida and in Washington, there are other interests backing it that are even bigger."Andreas and the Fanjuls, however, would hardly go broke if the price fell to market levels, and their iron grip on a system that feeds them welfare while failing to make them clean up their mess is infuriating to many. "These guys are so big, and so rich and so full of themselves," says Mary Barley, "sometimes I think they don't even do it for the money. Sometimes I think they fight us just so they don't lose, just to protect their egos."The biggest crusher of all came in 1993, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Gov. Chiles signed the "Everglades Forever" Act. "That bill was just a total sell-out," seethes Barley. "We had a really strong federal suit going that would have forced Big Sugar to finally clean up a good chunk of its mess, and in come Babbitt and Chiles to totally let them off the hook."The Act was essentially drafted by the Fanjuls, and so enraged legendary Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas that she demanded Chiles take her name off it. Specifically, it allows sugar to escape the brunt of the cost of fixing the Everglades water flow. It also exempts the growers from water quality regulations until deep into the next century -- by which time Barley and others say the 'glades, bay and reefs will be as good as dead. "Clean-up must start now," Mary says. "We can't wait for it all to drop dead before we do something."Right now, though, the fight for the Everglades and Florida Bay is taking as many twists as the Kissimmee River before the Army Corps gouged it straight.For one thing, after years of starving the Everglades for water, Big Sugar is now drowning it. Amidst the heavy rains of the last three years, the state of Florida -- at taxpayer expense -- has pumped billions of gallons of water out of the cane fields and into the 'glades. But the swamplands are relatively flat, and can only shunt off excess water very slowly. As a result, while tax dollars keep the cane fields dry, the Everglades have been drowning.Thousands of swamp deer, without high ground to hide on, have been devoured by alligators. Alien flora, like melaleuca and cattails, are choking huge chunks of the region, while mangroves, crucial to the ecosystem, are dying off. The Miccosukee tribe has been all but flooded out of its ancestral homeland.Ironically, the new dose of rain and winter cold has sparked signs of life in Florida Bay. But funds to study the potential revival are virtually non-existent.Meanwhile, the battle over subsidies has been fired up by -- of all things -- the national budget crisis.Three months ago, as Floridians again debated taxing cane, the renewal of the federal sugar subsidy as part of a five-year agriculture bill was considered a done deal. Congressional budget cutters did trim a wide range of farm subsidies. But with Big Sugar, ADM and the corn and beet industries in the saddle, sugar's welfare program seemed safe.In reaction, a unique -- bizarre might be a better word -- coalition sprung up, linking environmentalists with right-wing free traders and mega-buck candy and soft-drink manufacturers. Mars Candies, Coca-Cola and their food industry cohorts want the subsidies gone so they can pay less for sweeteners. They've yet to match ADM or the Fanjuls for clout. But the debate has gotten so twisted that Andreas recently accused hard-right Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) of opposing the sugar subsidy at the behest of Hershey's Chocolates.Santorum joins conservative advocates of free trade such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute in fighting sugar's dole as an aid to balancing the budget. Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), a powerful Gingrich ally, has compared the subsidy to a whim of Marie Antoinette.Thanks largely to Mary Barley's efforts, the issue has garnered serious national media attention, drawing a lead editorial in The New York Times and strong coverage on the major networks and National Public Radio. "When Bob Dole gets on Larry King after the Florida caucus and talks about saving the Everglades, you know the issue is finally out there," says Charles Lee. "The amperage of the campaign has gone way, way up."Shocking sugar subsidies out of the federal budget could transform South Florida agriculture. Lee, Browder, Barley, and others believe that without their subsidy, Big Sugar economically could not farm those wetlands, and that a significant percentage of the cane fields would be available for rehabilitation."They burn those fields every year as part of the harvest," says Mary. "Soon the peat's going to be gone, and they'll be down to bare limestone, at which point they'll just pack up for South America and leave the mess to us taxpayers."But if faced with a free market, "maybe they'll walk out of the fields while there's still some peat left, and we can re-flood and let the water kill off the cane and the melaleuca and let nature take its course."The growers say if they are taxed, Florida will lose 40,000 jobs, but we know that's a lie," she adds. "They're mechanizing like crazy, and they've barely got 2,000 people working in the fields now. Tax or no tax, that number is going down."Once sugar gets out of the 'glades the water can flow the way it should, and the ecosystem can recover and the tourist and fishing industries can provide us with stable jobs and a healthy long-term economy," she says.As she did before George was killed, Mary Barley devotes her days to making that happen. "Just about everybody working on the Everglades talks to Mary on a regular basis," says Browder. "Both here and on a national level, it's pretty hard to overestimate her impact.""Sometimes I wonder about the next plane I'm getting into," Mary says. "But you just have to keep fighting. Sooner or later, we just might win."