The Adventures of Eco Man

"You can't put this in your story," says Ed Davidson, hunched over a tiny sewing machine in his shop at Biscayne National Park, repairing a piece of diving gear. "Wouldn't fit the image." The image that presents itself, in odd counterpoint to the sewing session, is this: a diminutive Hemingway with bulging Popeye-esque forearms and calves; a suntanned, steely eyed sea dog clad in faded khaki shorts and a blue work shirt, the latter emblazoned with the words "Captain Ed" on the breast pocket; a swaggering beach bum of the rum-soaked Florida Keys, beard streaked with gray, longish hair straggling out from under a big-billed fishing cap in the style of Vietnam vets who have wound up in warm locales.

Davidson, who is all of those things and none, pauses to check on the Reef Rover, one of two charter boats he operates as sole concessionaire at this 180,000-acre aquatic preserve just east of Homestead. The boat, bobbing five miles offshore near a cluster of coral reefs, is safely anchored in a stiff breeze blowing out of the northwest. One or two of the 30 snorklers and scuba divers on board will come back seasick. But most will return to tell friends and neighbors of the park's pristine underwater world. For thousands of European tourists, elderly snowbirds, fly-boys from nearby Homestead Air Force Base, and adventurous locals, the encounter with breathtaking natural beauty will be permanently linked to the memory of Captain Ed.

Normally the fortysomething-year-old Davidson - he won't give his exact age "for fear of scaring off the ladies" - pilots the glass-bottom Reef Rover himself, guiding the specially designed aluminum craft through the shallow blue-green waters past low-lying mangrove barrier islands. Mangroves aren't terribly pretty, and they exude a sulfurous, rotten-eggs odor. But, Davidson points out, their leaves and roots are essential fodder and feeding ground for the myriad sea creatures that inhabit this fragile coastal ecosytem. "No mangrove, no seafood," he declaims. "It's real simple." So begins a floating seminar in which Davidson describes for his captive audience the destructive onward march of "Florida's fastest growing species, the condominius giganticus," and also lists some of his many environmental credentials: past president of the Florida Keys Audubon Society; expert witness in state and federal hearings on marine resource management; reef preservation consultant to the U.S. Department of the Interior. By the time his pink-skinned passengers get to the coral barrier reef ten miles from the dock, they may have forgotten they came to snorkel. That's okay with Davidson. "The only hope for saving the good stuff is to get to the kids before they have jobs in construction," he says. "No one comes back on that boat without having absorbed some serious and important information."

Another favorite theme in Captain Ed's seminar is the superiority of Biscayne National Park to the far more popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park immediately to the south. Last year 1.5 million people visited Pennekamp; 12,000 rode along with Davidson. The twenty miles of reef at Biscayne National Park are in better shape, and snorklers on the Reef Rover will rarely see another boat. Davidson likes to remind visitors that Miami is the only American metropolis with two national parks. Yet Biscayne is comparatively unknown, often bypassed by tourists in favor of the Everglades. In six years as concessionaire, working with a series of college-age helpers, Davidson has tried to reverse that pattern, singing the praises of his park's 44 mostly uninhabited islands, and especially its coral reefs. "Most national parks are built around some central geographical feature or concentrated resource," he notes. "Here the primary resource is invisible because it's underwater, and the only way to get to it is by boat." Not only does Biscayne National Park contain a generous chunk of the outer barrier reef that fringes the Gulf Stream for 200 miles, but also a proliferation of beautiful patch reefs, nowhere else so healthy and well preserved. If you don't look toward the north - home of Mount Trashmore, the giant county garbage dump - or toward the south - where the twin smokestacks of Turkey Point nuclear power plant rise above the flat horizon - you can imagine the Keys as they were before man littered them with K-marts and Kwik Stops.

If not for Ed Davidson's efforts, this stretch of Biscayne Bay might look very different. He has spent the past decade helping lead a successful fight to save nearby North Key Largo from commercial development, and, together with his fellow Audubon activists, pursuing one of the lengthiest environmental lawsuits in the country. For years Davidson has pounded podiums at public meetings, challenged hundreds of zoning variances for new construction, and raised funds for environmental candidates and causes. He has sued developers on behalf of silent Keys residents such as the wood rat, the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, the cotton mouse, and the American crocodile, and has been countersued for slander and libel by those same developers. He traversed Monroe County in a canary-yellow blazer and a borrowed Porsche to run for commissioner in 1982, losing the battle but helping further his message: Keys residents must find a way to control their own growth, or else risk destroying the things that brought them here in the first place.

Today, while the wind is blowing, Captain Ed stays ashore to prepare for a couple of guests. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau and the head of the Cousteau Society, is coming down for a Friday night fund raiser at the Cheeca Lodge in Key Largo. And John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, one of the nation's largest conservation-oriented land trusts, arrives Saturday morning for a boat tour. In between sewing and other office chores, Davidson is on the phone, networking. His range of contacts is legendary. Throughout his years of environmental activism, Davidson has won plenty of powerful enemies. But he's gathered around him a host of friends, too.

Bob Baker, southeast regional director of the National Park Service, praises Davidson for his unusual ability to successfully combine running a business with educating the public. Where other concessionaires exist to make money through sweet, monopolistic arrangements with parks, Davidson has an "almost theological" reverence for the natural resource in which he operates his boat tours, Baker says. "He's got guts as well as vision," adds J. Allison DeFoor II, former Republican candidate for the office of Florida lieutenant governor and a past president of the Florida Keys Land Trust. "It's real easy in the conservation area to make a lot of noise and not have much impact, and then act smug about it. Ed's not like that. He's someone who has made a real difference." Democratic Senator Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, also counts himself a fan. "Ed is living proof that knowledge plus perseverance equals results," Graham says. "He personifies environmentalism in Florida. He combines knowledge of marine science and knowledge of the Keys with a passion for preservation."

Born and reared in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, Davidson was a bookish, introverted national merit scholar who never dated in high school, and passed up a full scholarship to Cornell in favor of a special engineering program in the U.S. Navy. After entering the service, he spent five years at the elite science and engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. There he studied physics for two and a half years before switching to humanities, graduating with bachelor of science degrees in psychology and philosophy. He pursued graduate work in both those subjects, writing a thesis on Eastern religions, and also attended advanced military engineering and intelligence schools.

Davidson first came to the Keys in 1967, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, having just returned from harrowing back-to-back tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was one of only several dozen fighter pilots to survive more than 200 combat missions. Davidson had gone to Southeast Asia idealistic about the war but came considerably less so. "Once we were there, most people realized how absurd it was," he recalls. "But we had all this male bonding going on - that sort of thing. And we tried to see it through." Besides flying planes off the decks of aircraft carriers at night in the middle of monsoons, Davidson was responsible for writing exaggerated, heroic narratives to accompany the presentation of medals to military higher-ups. And in his spare time, he began writing something else, a nonfiction manuscript he called Letters from Armageddon, which eventually grew to 400 pages. The book, by turns witty, philosophical, and ribald, chronicled the irresponsibility, incompetence, and "wholesale betrayal of the national trust" by various senior military officers in the Navy air command.

Returning to the United States, Davidson became a flight instructor at the Navy's Top Gun school in Key West. He says he was startled to find that pilots were being taught dogfighting techniques straight out of World War II. Few of his fellow instructors had any real experience. "They were living in fairyland," Davidson says. "Everything they were teaching was antiquated and would prove fatal in the first 48 hours of combat. We really got into it. I had a mustache and sideburns, and they thought I was some California hippie who had found a military ID card in the street. As my perspective became more and more disenchanted, I became more and more vocal." Davidson began making some serious enemies in Key West. And about that time, by a complicated series of events, a copy of Letters from Armageddon was intercepted by an army general. Instead of inspiring an investigation of the officers Davidson had criticized, the book nearly bought Davidson a court marshal. At the same time, he says, his commanding officers in Key West were loading him up with night flights in worn-out airplanes - assignments Davidson concluded were meant to kill him.

Davidson got out in 1970, resigning his lieutenant's commission and penning a scathing letter to then-Secretary of the Navy John Chafee. But despite his disillusionment with the military, Davidson has never lost his passion for high-performance airplanes, and martial jargon frequently colors his speech. It was the dangerous lack of creativity among top brass that soured him on the Navy, not the military life itself, Davidson says. "If the President called me tomorrow and offered me Interior or Defense, I'd have a real tough time deciding," he declares, and he currently holds the rank of lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. In Florida, as in Vietnam, Davidson says he is trying not to betray the sacrifices made by his fellow airmen in the war. He says, "A lot of what I'm doing I do because I owe it to all the dead people I used to know."

In pursuing his vision of public service, Ed Davidson is uncommonly focused. He tries to live his life according to the Buddhist principle of nonattachment, and cultivates what he calls a "yoga of work." He doesn't drink or smoke, and eats sparingly. He doesn't take days off. He doesn't own a home. He says he sleeps only two or three hours at a time on the couch in his dive shop, with friends in the Keys, or in the cabin of a 60-foot mahogany pirate galleon, the Dutchess, which he stores in a Marathon boat yard. "I'm not house trained, and I'm not interested in having a lifestyle," he claims. "One of the things that makes me unnerving as an adversary is that I can do without everything."

Conchs - Keys natives - don't much care for Davidson's style or his brand of preaching. And although he has a great affinity for the Keys, Davidson, citing his Northeastern upbringing, says he has never developed much affection for Conchs. He points out that the local gene pool has been stocked for three centuries with renegades, rumrunners, pirates, and outlaws, whose descendants have been known to thumb their noses at the rule of law. "People who presume that they have a personal, parochial right to squander a world-class resource, well, that's offensive," says Davidson.

For their part, the Conchs claim they are standing up for the inalienable American rights to property and productive labor. Two quotes from the same 1983 newspaper story illustrate the opposing and seemingly irreconcilable visions of the Keys' destiny. At the time, a Monroe County grand jury investigating commercial development in North Key Largo had called for a building moratorium until Keys legislators studied the environmental impact of condo construction and prepared a comprehensive land-use plan for the area. "We are talking about finishing the devastation of the Florida Keys if we don't stop everything until we have those plans," Davidson hollered. Jerry Hernandez, then mayor of the Monroe County Commission, saw it differently: "Any building moratorium in the Keys would be economically devastating. It would mean instant unemployment."

Davidson had first stumbled up against the classic Conch mentality at a public meeting soon after he left the Navy. "For the first time in my adult life I wasn't doing anything important," he recalls. "I was in limbo. I literally sat down under a tree and said, `God, what do I do now?' And I was still waiting for Him to give me an answer when I went to this meeting and heard that reactionary son of a bitch equate all the sacrifice I'd gone through to his own right to reap a windfall profit from the public domain."

At the meeting Davidson mentions, the lone reform-minded member of the Monroe County Commission was trying to explain to an angry crowd the necessity of limiting new water permits - construction papers that allow residential and commercial properties to be connected to the county water supply. As Davidson remembers it, one man stood up and denounced the commissioner as un-American, recounting the story of his son-in-law who had fought Communists in Vietnam and come back home to find he couldn't get a water permit for his new house. It was too much for Davidson. "I said, `Wait a goddamn minute...,'" he recalls. He's been saying the same thing ever since.

At Port Bougainville, about a mile north of where busy U.S. 1 meets the quieter Card Sound Road in North Key Largo, the weeds are in control. Wood rats fumble in the underbrush, and young mangroves have begun to clog the acres of empty boat slips. Near the artificial lagoon, blasted out of oolite a decade ago, a family of blue heron has taken up residence.

Upward of 7000 wealthy sun-lovers once hoped to live here like latter-day Gatsbys in the last pristine stretch of the Florida Keys. But what was to be a half-billion-dollar luxury condo development - the biggest ever conceived for Monroe County - is now a rotting, half-finished monument to greed and bad planning. From atop the windowless, five-story Port Bougainville bell tower, you can see the dozen model units, scavenged and burned by vandals, and the unpaved roads overgrown with vines. The black water of the canals, meant for merry yachting traffic and Venetian reveries, now lies in eerie backwoods silence. No barman tends the mock nineteenth-century beer wagon near the main dock. A chalkboard, intended to list the menu of the day, is blank, and saplings are firmly rooted on the open-air dance floor. Over the years, half the red clay tiles have been yanked from Port Bougainville's community center, an elegant, fourteen-room Mediterranean-style villa with carved-stone balustrades and finely arched porticoes.

Once in a while - not too often - Ed Davidson likes to come back here to visit the subject of his loudest and longest environmental exhortation. "I call this place the ghost of development's past," he says, his smile half-triumphant, half-wistful. A hawk passes over the ruins of Port Bougainville, riding the warm currents of the air at sunset. Davidson watches it for a time and says, "It's kind of spooky, standing in the middle of something you've helped bankrupt."

Port Bougainville was controversial from the start. In 1981 and 1982, Miami Herald reporters Brian Duffy and Carl Hiaasen broke a series of front-page stories that chronicled a pattern of loose oversight, conflict of interest, and political shenanigans among Monroe County officials who monitored the building project. A grand jury in the Keys later criticized Monroe County Mayor Jerry Hernandez and his fellow commissioners for accepting helicopter rides and other freebies from Port Bougainville developer Fritz Scharenberg.

For years North Key Largo, a 12,000-acre stretch of hardwood hammock and sensitive mangrove wetland just 40 miles south of Miami, had escaped commercial intrusion because of a dearth of natural drinking water. That changed at the end of 1980, when the county began building a new water pipeline. Ostensibly the pipeline was to service the residents of the already existing Ocean Reef Club, a millionaires' village at the north end of the island. But the denizens of Ocean Reef already had an expensive desalination system, wanted no part of the pipeline project, and sued in court to keep from paying for it. Meanwhile, pipe was being laid on the wrong side of Card Sound Road - through the habitat of the endangered American crocodile. The completion of the water line in early 1982 touched off a furious land grab. Some twenty applications for North Key Largo developments went before the pro-business Monroe County zoning board, which quickly approved them, as was their custom. By far the most grandiose of these ventures was Port Bougainville, a 2800-unit complex in the style of a Mediterranean fishing village, complete with a helicopter landing pad, a boat yard, service station, shopping mall, and jetport.

Aside from the traffic, noise, and hurricane evacuation problems the newly approved North Key Largo developments would create, Ed Davidson and his fellow environmentalists opposed them for other reasons. Port Bougainville and its smaller imitators would straddle the habitat of a half-dozen threatened or endangered species. The area the developers were eyeing lies just west of one of the world's largest barrier reefs, in a delicate ecosystem bordered on three sides by state and federal park land.

In Under Cover of Daylight, a best-selling eco-thriller set in the Florida Keys, novelist James Hall comes close to chronicling Davidson's real-life battles for North Key Largo. The book describes a down-and-dirty fight over the endangered wood rat and the fate of a fictional "Port Allamanda." In one scene, outnumbered environmentalists and money-mad developers meet for a public hearing in the lunchroom at Key Largo Elementary School. At that point, Davidson's friends say, the novel's protagonist sounds suspiciously like Captain Ed:

"When will it be that someone will walk into a room like this and say, `I'll trade you a library, I'll trade you a couple hundred temporary jobs for your last lobster'? Is that when you'll say no? Not lobsters. We like lobsters. Or make that sailfish. Or put in there grouper, snapper, trout. You name it." The speaker continues: "We've got numbers, facts, charts. We can show your taxes are going to go up, not down. We can show how many more cars there'll be between you and the grocery. How long the lines are going to be at the bank and the drugstore. We can tell you just how small the trickle coming out of your faucet will be as soon as they tap into the lines. But this whole thing isn't numbers. It's not numbers at all."

That speech, phrased one way or another, time and time again, was Davidson's drumbeat. Throughout the early 1980s, as head of the Florida Keys Audubon Society and the Florida Keys Citizens Coalition, he and fellow activists fought a war of attrition from Key West to Tallahassee to Washington, winding through suits and countersuits, name calling and anonymous death threats, negotiations and lobbying, criminal investigations and demonstrations. In 1982, when he was operating a commercial dive shop in Marathon, Davidson ran a late-starting and underfunded campaign for county commission. He lost, but surprised even himself by winning 44 percent of the vote in a run-off, thus demonstrating the depth of concern about development in the Keys.

"It seemed impossible at that time to stop anything as significantly linked to the decision makers as Bougainville was," recalls Dagny Johnson, a preservationist member of the Monroe zoning board, appointed in 1980 by the lone reform commissioner, Wilhelmina Harvey. "We must have gone to every appellate court in the state, and we lost every time. Ed never gave up. He was absolutely tireless. I have never seen such a bundle of outrage. He was fresh and irreverent, and plenty eye catching."

Nothing about the four-year battle for North Key Largo was simple, including the end. The lawsuit brought by the Audubon Society under the federal Endangered Species Act cost the developers money and bought time for Davidson and his cohorts. Still, although its backers never received a certificate of occupancy, Port Bougainville was able to proceed with construction. Davidson was forced to compromise. He and his colleagues negotiated concessions to lessen the adverse impact of the project. Along the way, Davidson and Port Bougainville developer Fritz Scharenberg struck up a surprising friendship - a fact that enraged other nearby builders and worried activists. (Today Davidson remembers Scharenberg fondly: "Fritz and I got along famously even though I cost him millions," he recalls. "He agreed to do things no developer in the history of the Keys ever did.") Eventually, Port Bougainville's financing fell apart. Scharenberg pulled out, leaving his mammoth dream to the weeds and wood rats. At Davidson's urging, the state was able to move in and buy the land.

The death of Port Bougainville understandably frightened the captains of commerce. One by one, other, smaller developments gave up the ghost. The water pipeline built in 1980-81 went unused. Under a plan promoted by Davidson and other conservationists, most of the 3000 remaining developable acres in North Key Largo have been purchased by Florida's Department of Natural Resources, or are being considered for such acquisition. Last year Davidson helped arrange the sale of the second-largest chunk of land, urging the state to pay fair prices to its private owners. So far, $40 million in tax revenues have been spent by the state.

Perhaps even more important than the tangible changes, Davidson's successful fight to stop Port Bougainville permanently raised the level of consciousness over environmental issues in the Keys. Davidson says he was astonished and gratified by the recent grassroots opposition to proposed oil drilling in Monroe County. "When I was a kid, no one had the faintest idea we were screwing up the world," he says, taking the global view. "All the men in my childhood worked at the car plants in Buffalo or at Bethlehem Steel. We drove past miles of purple water and yellow smoke and gray soot, and we thought that was normal. Today, an increasing majority of the American people have serious environmental concerns - and are willing to spend money to preserve things and clean things up."

Davidson, having fought the good fight, isn't thinking about retirement. And his optimism about the future of South Florida's natural beauty only runs so deep. You can find him any day of the week working the phones and the marine radio in his cramped dive shop at Biscayne National Park, or out scouting the blue waters of the bay. When you do, he will most likely reel off a litany of nearby environmental bogeymen: "The Jack Nicklaus golf course at Cutler Bay - fifty-some acres of wetland on the edge of a national park - what a bunch of crap! The county landfill is producing leachate, which pours into the bay - it's scandalous! So we're going to chop down mangroves along one section of coastline, pour disgusting garbage effluents into the bay along another, and meanwhile wait for Turkey Point to melt down. I'd say there's a few things left to be worried about.

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