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Miami environmental activist Barbara Lange recalls the first time she laid eyes on George Barley. It was several years ago and the man was holding forth at a meeting of Florida environmentalists, individuals who, to a person, had dedicated a significant amount of their lives to protecting the natural ecosystem. "I walked into this meeting and he was saying, 'What have you guys ever done to save the Everglades?'" Lange recalls with a laugh. "He was saying, 'Tell me what you've all done to save the Everglades. You've been working on this for ten years and what have you done to save the Everglades?' No one could think of anything, of course, and I was thinking, 'This is someone I can relate to.'"
At that Miami meeting of the Everglades Coalition (a group of representatives from various Florida environmental and conservation organizations), Barley introduced the members to his campaign for a statewide referendum that would force the legislature to tax the sugar industry for its Everglades pollution. Lange recounts: "He said, 'I've got this petition and I'm going to change the law!'"
A wealthy Orlando developer, Barley wasn't exactly a neophyte conservationist. In 1983, for example, he had been appointed chairman of the state's first Marine Fisheries Commission, and he had sat on the boards of a number of other state and national conservation committees and groups. But his work on the referendum -- in the end a losing effort -- made him one of the most visible and influential environmental activists in the state. Certainly one of the brashest.
Barley's interest was as personal as it was intense. An Islamorada homeowner and avid fisherman, he had witnessed the rapid decline of Florida Bay. He blamed industry, particularly the sugar cane farms on the south rim of Lake Okeechobee, whose polluted runoff was degrading the fragile ecosystem. "It was a personal tragedy that ignited him and infuriated him," says Nathaniel Reed, a veteran Florida environmentalist and member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. "He was infuriated with the standard, quiet Everglades Coalition type. He demanded to know: 'Why haven't you gone to the president? Why haven't you declared a national emergency? Why haven't you done this? Why haven't you done that?' George wasn't invited to a lot of early meetings -- he just came. I rejoiced that we had the bull. The bull had arrived!"
But the raging stopped a month ago when a small plane crashed near Orlando, killing Barley and the pilot. His death has created a discernible vacuum in the Florida environmental movement, and it's unclear how -- or whether -- it will be filled. Two weeks ago, though, Barley's wife Mary officially took control of his campaigns. She assumed her husband's place as head of both the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization Barley established in 1993, and the Everglades Trust, its political lobbying arm created this past year. Barley's three daughters from a previous marriage also will join in the effort. "There was no way I could let it drop," Mary Barley says of her husband's work.
At the time of his death, Barley, a seventh-generation Floridian, was working tirelessly to eliminate the federal price-support system for sugar growers. He was campaigning "24 hours a day" and was the single most active person fighting that battle, reports Jeff Trammell, a senior vice president of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, which was hired by Barley's Everglades Trust to promote his agenda in the business community. Environmentalists and others working closely with Barley say he also was preparing a second ballot measure to tax Big Sugar to help pay for Everglades cleanup. (The first referendum effort, which sought to place a penny tax on every pound of sugar produced in Florida, failed in 1994 when the state supreme court unanimously decided the initiative's language smacked of "political rhetoric.")
While Barley's interest in the environment spanned the length of the state, he also covered a lot of ground in another way: As a developer he had accumulated extensive contacts in Florida's business community and had become politically well connected through his work as a Republican fundraiser. "He could cross over," says his widow, Mary, Barley's companion of 25 years. "Not only was he environmentally sensitive, but we were developers; we own a lot of land and understand how it all connects. Most people tend to be either one or the other."
Once Barley became convinced of the source of Florida Bay's troubles, it didn't take much for him to start creating havoc. Says St. Petersburg lawyer Curt Kiser, a former state senator from Palm Harbor who became close friends with Barley: "He already had the stature, he had the business and political contacts. So he started knocking on doors he'd already been to."
Barley's wealth also gave him extraordinary flexibility in pursuing his battles. (His financial wherewithal was augmented considerably by his close friendship with Paul Tudor Jones, a New York financier who sank nearly one million dollars into Barley's referendum drive.) "George was available to go here and go there at the drop of a hat: Tallahassee, Washington, D.C., Chicago," Kiser adds.