A Key Battle

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

How did things get to this point?
"From the beginning," says DeFoor, the ex-sheriff, "this whole thing was more of a spiritual issue than a practical one."

Perhaps. In the aftermath of the November 5 vote, federal officials and civilian supporters of the sanctuary have put forth the notion that people simply didn't understand what they were voting for, that the referendum was an irrational expression of anti-government hostility or the misguided product of anti-sanctuary propaganda. But whatever else it is, the sanctuary conflict is about two sharply defined and radically different world views -- an ideological war between outsiders superimposed on a long-simmering, home-grown culture clash.

The tenets of environmentalism are by now such a familiar part of life that it's hard to remember they once seemed radical. In the past twenty years, Congress has passed 300 major laws supporting the idea of collective control and stewardship of natural resources for the common good. Less familiar, but far from extinct, are the conservative beliefs about private property and individual liberty to which environmentalism was a reaction in the first place.

The king of the Conch Republic sits in a high-backed executive recliner, chain smoking Merits and watching tourists through the one-way security glass at his treasure museum in Key West. At first it seems that the king's chair must rest atop a hidden platform, for he looms over his subjects. But there is no platform; the king is simply tall, and preternaturally long-waisted. He is old, too, and moves with the economy of exhaustion.

He wears a gold medallion crusted with emeralds, and a pair of gold pens are stuck in the breast pocket of his brown guayabera. Behind him a blue banner proclaims the existence of the Conch Republic; before him lies a red velvet crown and conch-shell scepter. In 1982 Monroe County facetiously seceded from the United States and elected its own imperial court, now presided over by the world's most famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, whom many believe to be the richest man in Key West. Twelve years ago Fisher found the Atocha, a wrecked Spanish galleon with cargo worth as much as $400 million. The tourists wandering on the other side of the one-way mirror are looking at trinkets from the Atocha's trove -- gold and silver jewelry, and emeralds torn out of the New World four centuries ago.

Though Taras Lyssenko may be the most boisterous of sanctuary opponents, County Commissioner Reich, Key West businessman Ed Swift, and treasure hunter Fisher are the Conch Coalition's highest-profile cheerleaders. Fisher speaks about the federal government and the sanctuary takeover: "It's like that Arab saying: If you let the camel put his nose in the tent, the next thing you know he's sleeping with you and shitting in your bed. My main interest is I want them to leave me alone and let me treasure hunt. If it's in international waters, beyond the three-mile limit, then it's finders keepers. And they were foreign ships passing by on their way to another foreign country. With this new deal, they're just trying to take all the treasure, 100 percent."

Fisher guesses that a hundred million dollars' worth of booty lies inside the sanctuary's boundaries. As it stands, the sanctuary's final management plan discourages treasure salvage by requiring lengthy permit applications and complicated archaeological and environmental assessments at every stage of the recovery process. The sanctuary reserves the right to issue emergency decrees halting all salvaging, and in fact did so five years ago, suing Fisher for damaging sea grass off Coffin's Patch as he worked what he believes to be his next big find.

Governments and the academic establishment have neither the funding nor the stomach for the dicey treasure hunting game, Fisher contends; and restrictions such as the ones imposed by the sanctuary drive salvagers into the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, leaving archaeologically precious underwater resources undiscovered.

"The ones that want it is the Nature Conservancy," Fisher says, referring to America's wealthiest environmental organization, whose Key West offices are only a block away. "They want all the oil rights and the mineral rights and treasure rights. They're using the government as a tool. They're very powerful. I'm sure that they're the ones that directed NOAA to sue me. They're the ones that hired the expert witnesses to testify and lie against me. I got to stand up for my rights. What I want them to do is drop the lawsuit and rescind the sanctuary and leave."

The king launches into a long disquisition about what needs to be done in the Everglades: Canals should be dammed in Central Florida's sugar country, holding tanks created, and the water from agricultural areas treated with aeration and filtration and genetically engineered algae.

The Everglades is a complex mess, yes indeed, and Everglades problems have an impact on the waters of Monroe County. But then Fisher says something alarming: The government itself intentionally engineered the mess, keeping flood gates of pollution open when it could have shut them years ago. Why would the government do such a thing?

"I think the Nature Conservancy people did it to trash the economy of the Florida Keys so they could buy up all the real estate," he says. "I hate to take them on, but if I don't they're just going to put me out of business. I had to cancel two treasure hunting expeditions, $750,000 each, and give the money back to investors. So that took money out of the local economy right there.

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