A Key Battle

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

More broadly, Robertson rejects the Conch Coalition's repeated accusations that the Nature Conservancy is a self-serving manipulator of government bent on making a profit from real estate. He says he's grown weary of Taras Lyssenko and his merry crew.

"The sanctuary is a large and complex program, but that's because the problems are equally large and complex," Robertson says. "What happens in a situation like that is someone like Taras can take advantage of people's concerns and questions. He has mischaracterized and misrepresented our actions and motives to discredit the Nature Conservancy and thereby discredit the sanctuary. This is a phenomenon that we see in other parts of the country. It's disconcerting; it's not fun. It's personally distressing to me."

The abuses of truth in the service of politics have a queasy roosting spot in Lyssenko's own family background, one that his political enemies in the Keys have seized on gleefully. From 1940 to 1965, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a great-uncle, served as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and was president of the V.I. Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As Joseph Stalin's chief agricultural adviser, Lysenko led a decades-long assault on orthodox genetics that may have done as much to destroy the Soviet economy as did Cold War military spending.

"Lysenko's doctrines and claims varied with the amount of power that he held," writes historian Keith Benson. "Between 1948 and 1953, when he was the total autocrat of Soviet biology, he claimed that wheat plants raised in the appropriate environment produced seeds of rye, which is the equivalent to saying that dogs living in the wild give birth to foxes." By 1948 T.D. Lysenko had outlawed education and research in standard genetics, and "some geneticists had suffered secret arrest and death of undisclosed causes."

A 1938 photo of T.D. Lysenko shows a brutally handsome man with piercing eyes and a square jaw. Except for the intensity of the eyes, and the thin upper lip, there is little physical resemblance to his descendant. At age 40 Stalin's geneticist possessed a robust shock of hair that he kept brushed down over his forehead; by contrast, Taras Lyssenko's hairline is prematurely receding and his face is rounder, a friendly face perched atop a fit but unimposing body.

Of course, no one is responsible for his ancestors, and to view Taras Lyssenko's attitude toward science through the lens of his ancestor's life is as arbitrary as the physiognomic similarities in the photo are vague and ghostly. Yet Lyssenko's foes have tried. In diatribes posted on the Internet, pro-sanctuary activists in the Keys have hinted that Lyssenko's family owns "vast" timber reserves in Canada, and that his attempts to scuttle the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary are bankrolled and puppeteered by oil and mining interests. In fact, the family's Ontario property amounts to a primitive hunting camp on a few hundred acres filled with pulp-grade conifers, and the links to oil and mining simply don't exist. As for the evil great-uncle, Taras Lyssenko never met him; he learned most of what he knows about the man from watching a PBS documentary.

If Keys environmentalists knew their enemy better, they would understand that a far more influential figure in his life was his grandfather, Trofim Denisovich's estranged brother, who raised him. His grandfather encouraged his forays into the Canadian woods. "He was one of the last Cossacks," says Lyssenko. "I remember he would say, 'Whenever we rode up over a hill, we would look to our left and look to our right, looking at the Red Army. Never once did I see that we were not outnumbered ten to one. But we charged just the same, because we were right. Always remember that. In the end they will prove we were right.'

"It's real easy to go along with the masses," Lyssenko adds. "It's real easy to say 'I'm going to be for this because it's the government, and everybody thinks it's the right thing to do.' My grandfather always said, 'Put your faith in God; put your trust in your sword; put your sword in your enemy.'"

True believers in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are in a sour mood these days. Taken aback by the November 5 referendum, some have been soul-searching, trying to figure out what went wrong; others have decided that the vote is essentially meaningless and decided to ignore it.

Earlier in the year U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch said his position on the sanctuary would be based on how people in the Keys voted. But despite voters' opposition to it, Deutsch has since announced he will support the final management plan anyway. Cynics point out that the congressman owes only twelve percent of his electorate to Monroe County and can afford to risk alienating a portion of it. (Deutsch declined to discuss his apparent flip-flop with New Times.)

Federal officials and environmentalists who are willing to talk about the referendum acknowledge some tactical mistakes, while tending to downplay the role of Taras Lyssenko and the Conch Coalition. They generally wax philosophical, predicting that within a matter of weeks the sanctuary will be a done deal.

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