A Key Battle

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

Though legally meaningless, the nonbinding referendum was a titanic public relations fiasco for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the Department of Commerce charged with managing the saltwater behemoth. The government's failure to enlist the support of even a bare majority of voters is shared by large out-of-town environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Marine Conservation, and the Nature Conservancy, all of which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Keys and badly fumbled their attempts to influence public opinion in favor of the management plan.

For Lyssenko and the 1500-member Conch Coalition, the vote was a long-overdue vindication -- one they believe has given new momentum to their cause just when they need it most. If the two-story sanctuary office represents the command bunker of an invading northern army, the waters below the Piper Cherokee may soon be Paradise Lost. In Lyssenko's view the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will put the last nail in the coffin of Monroe County's two oldest industries, treasure salvaging and commercial fishing; complete the tourist-driven commercialization of Monroe County; rob the populace of their property rights; waste their tax dollars; and put them at the mercy of federal agents packing Glock 9 millimeters. The idea of a national marine sanctuary, so innocuous at first glance, is a vast fraud that, according to Lyssenko, will fail to protect the environment, yet will create another permanent tier of wasteful government bureaucracy -- one that promises to expand its power in the Keys as year follows year.

Lyssenko points out propeller scars cut into a patch of sea grass. The national marine sanctuary provides harsh penalties for careless boaters who cause such damage, based on the currently accepted belief that prop scars take years to heal. Lyssenko thinks this is a wild exaggeration and claims that in his frequent airborne sorties he has seen propeller damage repair itself in mere weeks. The reef and its surrounding waters are uniquely precious, but are they as threatened as we imagine? No, says Lyssenko: The purported environmental crisis in the Keys is a clever justification for a power grab organized by big government acting in collusion with big environmentalism.

Below, a fishing boat loaded down with lobster traps is moving across Florida Bay toward home. Behind the vessel there's a cloudy trail kicked up by diesel engines running hard in ten feet of water, a phenomenon known as "puffing." Less than one percent of the sanctuary is now earmarked as a no-fishing zone (down from an initial twenty percent proposed five years ago). But there are other, more subtle ways in which commercial fishermen will be hurt by the new rules, Lyssenko says. Common phenomena like puffing may be curtailed by the feds, making commercial boat operation more and more burdensome. But is the sandy plume behind the fishing boat actually harmful? Should it be evaluated in absolute terms? Or in relative terms, based on how much protecting the environment might cost local industry?

Bringing his plane in for a perfect landing, Lyssenko comments on the current milieu in Monroe County: "We've had seven years of the most unbelievable weirdness that I think anyone's ever seen in this country. A lot of people, like the commercial fishermen, would like to settle this whole thing the way things were settled 200 years ago. I'll admit it, I sometimes would like to feel my fist connecting with someone's face. But it hasn't happened."

Since arriving in the Keys from Chicago four seasons ago, Taras Lyssenko -- treasure hunter, gadfly, dilettante newspaper publisher, and acknowledged carpetbagger -- has lost little time becoming the béte noire of local environmentalists -- at best a hyperactive boy running in circles through a room filled with fine crystal, at worst, to quote one federal official, "a dangerous radical with serious terrorist potential."

To cross the Monroe County line these days is to step through the political looking glass into a world of paranoia, death threats, wiretapping, slashed car tires, and sabotaged fishing traps; of federal officials hung in effigy and coconuts thrown in anger at county commissioners; of hot words and near bloodshed in parking lots outside public meetings and a daily drumbeat of overwrought accusations and wild propaganda. Consider:

*A note stuck to a front door with a hunting knife at the home of commercial fisherman Karl Lessard, formerly a federal appointee to the sanctuary's citizens advisory council: "You're the son of a bitch who sold us out -- we're watching you."

*An October 12, 1996, e-mail from anti-sanctuary newspaper columnist Ben Taylor to Billy Causey, NOAA's top sanctuary official: "You have a problem -- a major problem -- you have lied to the public -- you are dealing with crooks -- I have all the documentation I need to put all of you in jail. You are a coward in my mind trying to cover up the truth to serve your own purposes.... I will now expose you for the criminal you are. You've lied on numerous occasions and I will prove it to the public. Read me in the Chronicle this week. It is only the beginning. I will not rest until you are behind bars."

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