A Key Battle

The Conch Coalition and Taras Lyssenko claimed environmentalists were out to destroy the culture and economy of the Keys. Voters listened.

They all want to ride a wild horse," says Taras Lyssenko, explaining why women love him. "But if you ride a wild horse, is it wild any more? I basically don't stay with a woman longer than one night. If they want to cook breakfast, okay, but that's it. I'm a womanizer. It's the first thing I tell any woman I meet. If they're from around here, I don't have to tell them because they already know."

In the back seat of Lyssenko's single-engine Piper Cherokee, the latest target of opportunity giggles at the pilot's self-description and pulls a cloud of chestnut hair back from her forehead, the better to gaze out the cockpit window. Beyond and below the Florida Keys arc north toward Miami and south toward Key West, a majestic archipelago floating in aquamarine.

"Here, take the controls," Lyssenko says over the motor's drone. "Bring it down. Lets get a good look at the enemy."

The plane drops to a thousand feet, roaring in over Florida Bay toward the town of Marathon, aiming at a finger of land that is home to the office of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Lyssenko, who at various times calls himself a conservative Republican, an ultralibertarian, a survivalist, and a Renaissance man, relates how he and a friend buzzed the place at 300 feet a few weeks ago, hoping to scare some of the federal and state workers as they walked to their cars.

In his younger days, the 36-year-old Lyssenko lost his pilot's license once or twice, and has crash-landed this particular plane three times. A scar on his left forearm testifies to a close call with a burning helicopter back when he served as an army Ranger. There are other scars too, from years salvaging navy aircraft in the Great Lakes and from boyhood summers working in the logging camps of northern Ontario.

Lyssenko speaks in a clipped Midwestern voice full of yuhs and uhs. Everyone should see the Keys from the air, he insists, and the notion is hard to dispute on this morning of bright sunshine and light winds. Beyond Marathon the plane bears east over the Atlantic, turning to parallel North America's only coral barrier reef. The reef, with its surrounding universe of seagrass meadows and mangrove islands, makes up the marine equivalent of a tropical rain forest, fragile and biologically diverse, spectacularly beautiful, home to 6000 species of plants, fish, and invertebrates. But Lyssenko's tour-guide banter doesn't dwell on the wonders of nature.

"Pink and lime-green scuba divers everywhere, pissing all over the reef!" he snorts, banking the plane around Alligator Reef lighthouse. Lyssenko is predicting how the reef will soon be overrun by parasitic "ecotourists," and he goes on to explain a pet theory: that suntan oil and urine, imposed by weekend aquanauts, is more damaging to a coral reef than, say, standing on it. The fact that the latter trauma has been much publicized and the former ignored is proof to him of a larger phenomenon -- that the science on which government natural-resource policy is based may be much shakier than the public realizes, and is dangerously susceptible to political uses by "environmental wackos."

Stretching out farther than the eye can see, the water below the airplane is webbed with invisible demarcations. On November 16, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, making 2800 square miles of bay and ocean the United States's thirteenth marine sanctuary. At the time the designation seemed narrowly tailored to prevent oil exploration, to recognize the reef as a threatened national treasure, and to offer some response to a series of ship groundings on the reef that occurred in the last days of 1989.

Since then the sanctuary has remained mostly a mental construct. Boundary lines have been drawn around 2.4 million acres of water -- a vastitude the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined -- but the practical effect of the statutory designation is negligible. That will all change later this month when Florida's governor and cabinet vote on the sanctuary's management plan and pass it on to Congress for final approval. The details of how to manage the sanctuary are expressed in a sprawling, 800-page document that addresses everything from water quality improvement to boating regulations, and which, in Lyssenko's view, is a diabolical blueprint for a federal takeover of the culture, economy, and political autonomy of America's southernmost county.

Government officials and environmentalists in the Keys have spent the better part of seven years trying but failing to build a consensus for the sanctuary through an exhausting series of public hearings, advisory council meetings, and draft revisions -- what the sanctuary's superintendent calls "the most extensive public participation program ever in the history of the federal government." Along the way Lyssenko and a cadre of vocal opposition activists known as the Conch Coalition have sought to sabotage and dismantle the sanctuary at every turn, doing their part at the local level to stall the final showdown that now looms in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

At the moment Lyssenko and his confreres are riding a tidal wave of jubilation. On November 5 Keys voters turned out in record number for a referendum on the sanctuary. When the polls closed, 55 percent had voted against it. At a distance the result seemed incomprehensible to many, so incomprehensible that for a full hour on election night two Miami TV stations misreported the results as a 55-45 pro-sanctuary mandate.

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