A Fissure Runs Through It

Miami's chapter of the Audubon Society loses a leader and gains critics

Matters grew worse when Chinquina fought a plan by developer Armando Codina to breach the county's urban-development boundary line in order to build a Northwest Miami-Dade warehouse complex that critics charged would destroy wetlands and abut one of Miami's few drinking-water sources. In an interview with the South Florida Business Journal, Chinquina explained that Tropical Audubon had hired an attorney to oppose Codina's proposal.

When he read the resulting article, Chinquina was surprised to learn that a board member and former president of Tropical, Karsten Rist, was quoted as refuting his executive director's characterization of the project as destructive and describing the area where Codina wanted to build as "isolated wetlands."

Chinquina and other environmentalists had already butted heads with Rist over his support of a plan to create a so-called lake belt in the same area of Northwest Miami-Dade. Critics of the plan, which will allow rock-mining enterprises to expand their operations, say it will sacrifice more than 21,000 acres of wetlands. "Karsten Rist has been a cheerleader for the rock miners," charges Barbara Lange of the Sierra Club.

Rather than battling his own board at Tropical Audubon, Don Chinquina quit to become a full-time law student
Steve Satterwhite
Rather than battling his own board at Tropical Audubon, Don Chinquina quit to become a full-time law student

Rist is unapologetic about his support for the lake-belt plan and Codina, whom he describes as one of Miami's more responsible developers. He believes that for Tropical to be more influential, it needs to compromise. "If we ever want to break out of being a small group on the edge of public opinion, maybe we need to be willing to reach out more to the rest of society," he says.

Chinquina counters with his belief that the role of the environmentalist should be that of a forceful and unwavering advocate for nature. "The politicians will compromise," he notes. "That's not my job."

Convincing his board to take a strong environmental stance became more complicated for Chinquina when in 1999 he enrolled in law school as a night student. He often had to miss board meetings because of class, making it more difficult for him to argue his case before the board, a prospect he never enjoyed in the first place. "It's uncomfortable to take a hard line against a board member, when I served at the will of the board," he says.

After the Business Journal story, Chinquina decided that to protect his reputation, he would resign as executive director and become a full-time student with a specialty in environmental law. He hopes that, armed with a law degree, he can broaden his activism to help environmental groups statewide and perhaps even return to the Tropical Audubon in another capacity.

For Miami's handful of active environmentalists, Chinquina's departure is an enormous setback. "It's a huge loss for Tropical Audubon, and it's a boon for every scam artist who wants to profit at the expense of Florida's wildlife," says Barbara Lange.

But Tropical has not entirely abandoned its activist role. Former Biscayne National Park superintendent Dick Frost currently works as a consultant for the group and will try to pick up where Chinquina left off.

The former executive director's experience has taught Tropical president Joe Barros, a Chinquina supporter, that his organization must make some changes. "We need to decide who is going to speak for Audubon," he says.

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