Eye on the Everglades

As the acknowledged scientific expert on the Glades, Ron Jones brought Florida International University prestige and millions in grants, so naturally the school tried to have him arrested

The diminutive, quizzical professor combined passionate conviction with a penchant for blue or khaki jumpsuits, cutting an odd and striking figure on FIU's main campus. Jones concentrated on water quality in the Everglades; much of his work assessed the impact of pesticides and nutrients on the delicate ecosystem. The small-town boy spent countless hours roaming South Florida's marshlands, becoming convinced along the way that he'd found his true calling in the sawgrass swamp.

One thing he found in the Everglades' crystalline waters was that, in order to keep the water from being choked with cattails and water hyacinths, and to promote the growth of periphyton (an aggregation of tiny flora and fauna that owns the double virtue of cleaning phosphorus from the water and providing the base of the Everglades food pyramid), nutrient levels had to be low. Very low. Jones's research led him to believe that any amount of phosphorus -- an essential ingredient in the fertilizers used on the sugar and citrus fields that drain into the Everglades -- greater than ten parts per billion would eventually kill the slow-moving river he'd come to love. As late as 1994 water draining into the Everglades from agricultural areas contained phosphorus levels seventeen times higher than Jones's recommended cutoff point.

Before too long Jones -- never afraid to speak his mind -- was involved in high-stakes hydropolitics. He testified for the federal government in its lawsuit against the state for allowing too much phosphorus -- most of it from sugar fields -- into the Glades. The feds, led by former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, won the case in 1991. Jones's research ultimately established a ten-parts-per-billion phosphorus standard that the current Everglades Restoration Plan endeavors to uphold.

Retired Army Corps of Engineers Col. Terry Rice: 
"When you know Ron, you have to decide one thing: 
'Can I put up with Ron's eccentricities long enough to 
reap the benefits of his genius?'"
Jonathan Postal
Retired Army Corps of Engineers Col. Terry Rice: "When you know Ron, you have to decide one thing: 'Can I put up with Ron's eccentricities long enough to reap the benefits of his genius?'"

But Jones says he's not antibusiness, "just pro-truth" (truth always sounding like a proper noun when Jones utters it). Many environmental advocates weren't happy when he said his research showed that Big Sugar couldn't have a role in Florida Bay's harmful algae blooms. "I'm not against having the sugar industry in the Everglades," Jones says. "I'm just against having the sugar industry polluting the Everglades."

Any warm feelings the sugar mavens may have had for Jones wore off as he continued to fight for ten parts per billion, a measure the industry says is oppressive. So while his research may have argued that Big Sugar wasn't responsible for Florida Bay's problem, Jones hasn't exactly made friends in the industry, or in state government, by insisting that extremely low phosphorus levels are vital to the ecosystem's survival, and by taking part in major legal proceedings to ensure adherence. Along the way he has gained plenty of prominent friends (like Lehtinen, who as a private attorney now represents the Miccosukees), but he also has enemies in high places. When talking about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the university, a not-so-subtle paranoia sometimes creeps into his speech: "I think the state is telling [FIU] they're not going to give them any money unless they let me go."

Such assertions are nonsense, according to university spokeswoman Santana-Bravo, who says there are no ulterior motives behind FIU's refusal to continue any association with Jones. She also denies that anyone reported the Ford Excursion as stolen, "although we had some concerns about the registration -- who it was registered to. But no one called the police."

When confronted with e-mails from FIU general counsel Cristina Mendoza threatening Jones with arrest if he enters his office unsupervised, and another e-mail inquiring about the possibility of Jones sabotaging FIU computer servers, Santana-Bravo (a willing but at times uninformed stand-in for Mendoza) admits there's something a little strange going on. "It's really weird," she acknowledges, "because there didn't seem to be a reason. [Jones] is a person who did an excellent job for eighteen years and built a center that brings in $6.5 million."

Mendoza seems to be the source of most of the venom surrounding his departure, according to Jones. Why that would be the case, or whether she's just being an aggressive lawyer, is impossible to say -- she refused to speak with New Times, referring all queries to Santana-Bravo, who says, predictably, there's nothing personal to the quarrel. "I've never met [Mendoza]," Jones says, "but it seems like a weird strategy. FIU ends up with less money and equipment, and everyone winds up hating each other."

Some of the hostility surrounding Jones's departure may be the inadvertent result of his occasionally overwhelming manner. In short, he pisses people off, often without realizing it. This is the subtext when people say, "Oh, yeah, Ron. He's a real ... character." It has something to do with his daunting intelligence and domineering conversational style; Jones throws out sentences like right hooks, and punctuates most statements with an irksome "Okay?" that acts as a left jab. You have to pry your way into the conversation or stand silent witness to a Ron Jones soliloquy. In addition to the speed and volume of his words, there is something about his persistent posture of absolute certainty that rubs people the wrong way.

Col. Terry Rice, retired as the Jacksonville District commander for the Army Corps of Engineers (the district includes all of Florida and U.S. interests in the Caribbean), has been Jones's colleague, and over time has become close with the Jones family. "A friend of mine used to say he figured he'd been through a lot of hurricanes, and then he went through Andrew and realized he'd never really been through a hurricane before," Rice recounts. "That's how I felt as I came to know Ron. Before I met Ron in 1994, I'd known many geniuses. Then I met him and said, 'My God, I've only met one.'" Rice has seen Jones's reputation rise, and he's also seen the effect Jones can have on people.

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