A Key Battle

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

"The vote didn't mean a whole lot," concludes J. Allison DeFoor, a former sanctuary advisory council member. "I think all it proved is that we're a very contrary bunch of people down here. When the margins got thin on whether to vote yes or no, people decided they'd rather stick a stick in the machine of government than trust it."

DeFoor, who accuses Lyssenko and the Conch Coalition of perpetuating "a false dichotomy between conservation and economics," also blames the feds for fumbling the issues. "Where they blew it was their failure to define the battlefield, and in my mind it should have been oil drilling. Opposition to oil drilling once united everyone in the Keys."

Another error, DeFoor says, was restricting treasure hunting. "That was their fundamental mistake, going after the oldest industry in the Keys. There's the commercial fishermen, too. Are they going to be inconvenienced by the sanctuary? Sure. In fairness, those guys have been lied to in the past. They were told there would never be a lobstering ban in Pennekamp Park, and then it happened. They were told there would always be commercial fishing in Everglades National Park, and in the end there wasn't."

More than anything, the current chairman of the sanctuary advisory council sounds tired and ticked off. After 25 years of direct involvement in environmental issues in the Keys, Mike Collins has lately considered moving on, perhaps to Montana. However, he remains a staunch sanctuary advocate.

"When everything is said and done, we have a serious situation here that requires very large infusions of money and science," Collins says. "And absolutely no one trusts the only people who are equipped to do it, namely the federal government. I resent the way the Conch Coalition manipulates that mistrust. They are superimposing their prepackaged political philosophy onto a very delicate, complicated local situation. NOAA has made mistakes, but they made them because they're a bunch of idiots, not because they're a conspiracy of Darth Vaders. They aren't emotionally, physically, or mentally capable of pulling off a conspiracy. Hell, they can't even pull off a public information campaign! As for the environmental groups, I'm only a bit less disgusted with them than I am with the Conch Coalition itself."

Billy Causey, NOAA's sanctuary superintendent, calls the referendum "a letdown" and isn't fond of recalling the days leading up to it. "There was a lot of misinformation," he says. "The rumors were absurd. We heard from people that if they lost 51 percent of their roof, they could not rebuild their house. It was a total fabrication, and much of what we were dealing with was exaggeration and fabrication. Supporters of the sanctuary took the high road, and I'm proud of that, but it's a very difficult thing to do in a climate of suspicion. I don't think it will derail the sanctuary, but it sent a very loud signal."

Dave Holtz, a veteran election strategist, says environmentalists might have won the referendum but for a few significant miscalculations. "There was a big reluctance to go negative," he notes. "There was a sense that there was support out there for the sanctuary, and we didn't want to start mudslinging. Our approach was to reinforce the positive feeling toward the sanctuary that we thought already existed. There was a minority view that said what we had to do was define the opposition to the sanctuary as something evil and bad.

"What we found out very late was there was a large vacuum of information about the sanctuary. It became like the Red Scare of the 1950s, only this became the Fed Scare of the 1990s."

In the midst of the controversy leading up to the referendum, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, threatened to drop flood insurance on Keys homes set on pilings and with the downstairs enclosed. The announcement further soured Monroe Countians on outside bureaucrats. Bad timing.

"I've sat down and others have sat down and looked at the referendum precinct by precinct," says Holtz. "Number one, the opposition did one hell of a job getting people out to vote who hadn't voted in years and may never vote again. I don't give them credit for mounting the airwaves with a pack of lies, distortion, and misinformation. The week before the vote, I heard on the radio that when the sanctuary went through there would be a lottery, and only one out of three boaters would be able to use a boat. There were newspaper ads saying sportfishing would be outlawed, things like that. They were lies, pure and simple.

"I believe that if we had pursued a course where we were willing to take on the Wise Use Movement and made them the issue, then we would have carried the day. One of the few things that's more unpopular than the federal government is some of the leaders of the sanctuary opposition. I don't think Taras Lyssenko is someone who truly cares about the Florida Keys. For him this is just a battle in a major war against the government, and if there are casualties along the way, so be it. If along the way the reef dies, so be it, we've defeated the government. I think that's typical of the kind of militant extremist views that you find out West."

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