A Key Battle

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

Arnold adds: "I went away from the Keys thinking, 'These guys are going to change a federal law? -- yeah, right!' The one piece of strategy that I did give them was that the best propaganda is the truth. Shaping public opinion is a matter of finding out what's going on that's wrong."

Lyssenko remembers Arnold's advice this way: "He suggested we concentrate on embarrassing the environmentalists. That's when I started filing all my Freedom of Information Act requests."

The air is the only place Taras Lyssenko seems relaxed. On land he roars up and down the Overseas Highway in a Ford Bronco, jumps from his car to harangue shopkeepers, pops in at public meetings, and gathers material for his monthly newspaper. If he sleeps it's at Bonefish Towers, a stark-looking condominium in Marathon that has the dubious honor of being the tallest structure in the Keys. Lyssenko eats considerable amounts of hard candy but only one meal a day, generally Thai food.

Not only is Lyssenko exhausting to be around, he can be exasperating. Two political tactics especially irritate his enemies. The first is his use of humor, which Lyssenko accuses environmentalists of lacking and which they accuse him of possessing in obnoxious measure. In March Lyssenko circulated a letter to newspaper editors (including his own, at the Chronicle of the Keys) announcing the formation of Taras for Timber Wolves, a "large international environmental coalition" devoted to expanding the range of his favorite endangered species. The organization, he wrote, hoped to establish a wolf preserve on Big Pine Key. (Big Pine is already a protected area for the tiny, endangered Key deer.)

Lyssenko's other favorite tactic is one he learned years ago in the mountains near Dahlonega, Georgia, at the hands of the U.S. Army. It's the first principal of counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare: Know your enemy. Lyssenko takes the idea somewhat literally. He not only makes frequent unannounced debating visits to the local offices of the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Center for Marine Conservation but tries to sleep with as many of the environmentalist groups' female staffers as possible. ("What can I say?" says Michele Wells-Usher. "He subscribes to the predator theory.")

Following Ron Arnold's visit to the Keys in 1994, Lyssenko's intelligence gathering took a less sensuous but even more effective form. He and Conch Coalition members began peppering NOAA and other federal agencies with faxed records requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.

"We started doing it every day," Lyssenko recalls, speaking of fax, not sex. "We asked for the names of all the sanctuary enforcement officers and the serial numbers on their Glocks. Other requests were more serious. We requested records for the 500 boat groundings that supposedly took place on the reef in the previous year, which were being used to help justify the need for the sanctuary. Not one paper did I ever get on that."

What Lyssenko did get was a thick packet of internal billing ledgers from the Nature Conservancy. The environmental organization had received grants from NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The money was supposed to be spent on public education. Instead, Lyssenko noted, the Nature Conservancy had illegally used a portion of the grant money to lobby legislators and to ghostwrite speeches for Keys politicians, commercial fishermen, and chamber of commerce representatives who testified before Congress in support of the national marine sanctuary. The documents also note that the Nature Conservancy "developed and directed a plan to counter opposition's push for a countywide referendum against the establishment of the sanctuary."

Lyssenko says he passed this "smoking gun" on to Keys Rep. Peter Deutsch; when Deutsch didn't respond, he got a better idea. Reaching from America's southernmost congressional district to its northernmost, Lyssenko called up Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the powerful Natural Resources Committee. Lyssenko's timing couldn't have been better: Young, considered the Wise Use Movement's best friend on Capitol Hill, had just assumed the chairmanship of the committee as part of a conservative sea change in Congress and was feeling his oats. He may also have sensed a chance to publicly embarrass Deutsch, a political foe who had aided past electoral efforts to dump him. "Young's office asked for everything we had, and we turned it over," Lyssenko says. "Before long, they initiated the investigation."

The Government Accounting Office concluded that the Nature Conservancy had in fact acted illegally by using federal grant money to influence Monroe County politics, and that NOAA had fallen down on the job by failing to monitor its grant money appropriately. And again the Conch Coalition was the beneficiary of some amazing timing: The GAO report was released four days before the November 5 sanctuary referendum and became the talk of the islands at the worst possible moment for embarrassed conservationists.

Mark Robertson, director of the Nature Conservancy in Key West, says the GAO report made a mountain out of a molehill. The brouhaha resulted from honest bookkeeping errors, he contends. "We did not have in place the timekeeping system that was required by those grants in 1993," says Robertson. "As a result we were not able to prove or disprove allegations that the money was spent improperly."

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