Don Chinquina insists he's grateful to Miami's Tropical Audubon Society as he explains why he recently quit his job as the group's executive director. He's grateful for an opportunity that propelled him from a lowly department-store job to a major role as one of South Florida's leading environmental advocates. Chinquina also was serving as this year's co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, the potent lobbying force of 42 local, state, and national environmental organizations pushing an eight-billion-dollar effort to rescue the River of Grass.
Despite the opportunities, he left Tropical Audubon frustrated that his defense of the environment had not only failed to find support among prominent members of his own organization but that some of them had actively worked to thwart him. In Chinquina's final months on the job, a handful of board members publicly sided with developers pushing projects he opposed. "I began to see how our organization had subtly shifted to compromise," the 40-year-old activist says. "When you are an advocate for the environment, every time you compromise you lose something."
For Chinquina it has all been a learning experience. Nine years ago he was unloading merchandise from trucks at a Mervyn's department store. To maintain his sanity he would spend weekends camping at Everglades National Park. On one such trip he listened as a ranger delivered a lecture on endangered sea turtles. When the earnest Chinquina asked how he could help the struggling reptiles, the ranger suggested he join the local Audubon chapter.
By the time Chinquina approached Tropical Audubon, it had discontinued its turtle program, but he joined anyway. He found a venerable environmental organization almost a half-century old composed of ardent birders with a small activist core who took it upon themselves to lobby on behalf of the environmental issues that concerned them. Chinquina's enthusiasm was welcomed by the group. After about six months as a member, he joined the board of directors. Soon the organization sent him to Washington, D.C., to learn about the legislative process. Chinquina was thrilled at the prospect of enlisting as a foot soldier in the good fight to protect the environment.
In 1994, after several months of intense debate, Chinquina persuaded a majority of the board to hire him as a conservation advocate with the title of executive director. This would allow him to work full-time on behalf of the environment in Miami-Dade County. The move signaled a shift for the 2500-strong Tropical Audubon from a volunteer organization of dedicated birders to one that would be more politically active. Some board members had misgivings about their ability to pay Chinquina's salary. Others expressed hesitancy about the change in direction.
But Chinquina assumed his duties with gusto, monitoring environmentally sensitive development proposals and attending numerous public meetings each week. He represented Tropical on issues that included manatee protection, saving threatened pinelands, and halting westward urban sprawl. Since so many environmental organizations were already working on Everglades restoration, Tropical Audubon looked elsewhere and ended up concentrating on the protection of Biscayne Bay and the national park that carried its name. Chinquina and the organization distinguished themselves in this fight for their dogged opposition to a proposed commercial airport at Homestead Air Force Base. "Don put us on the map," says Joe Barros, a dentist who joined Tropical around the same time as Chinquina and currently serves as president.
Even with Chinquina's successes, Tropical still struggled to find money to pay his approximately $33,000 salary, drawing down on the organization's endowment when fundraising fell short. Chinquina says the group began searching for board members who could help raise money. Despite a history of corporate representation on the Tropical board, Chinquina's aggressive advocacy began to clash with the interests of some of the new board members.
The danger inherent in having board members whose occupations conflict with environmental protection became painfully apparent to Chinquina last year during a fight over illegal dredging and sea-grass destruction at the Port of Miami. As executive director Chinquina would inform interested board members about his strategies on any given issue. He did not know it at the time, but one of his board members, Amy Kimball-Murley, also was a consultant for the Port of Miami, his opponent in the sea-grass case. (According to county documents, the engineer of record in the illegal dredging case was Luis Ajamil, who happens to be a board member of Audubon of Florida.) "I didn't appreciate giving away my whole strategy," Chinquina says today.
In a more recent incident, Chinquina appeared this past June before a community zoning council in South Miami-Dade to oppose an application for construction of a cellular-telephone tower. One of those who testified on behalf of the cell-tower company was a Tropical board member, who informed the zoning officials that cell towers don't harm birds.
The attorney for the cell-tower company came from the same law firm as another Tropical Audubon board member. While listening to the lawyer cross-examine a consultant for Tropical, Chinquina came to suspect that his opponent had obtained access to details from Tropical's internal deliberations. Afterward the cell-tower's lawyer had asked whether it showed in their meeting minutes that the group had formally voted for the consultant to speak for the organization. The arrangement had in fact been more informal. Chinquina and Tropical president Barros both had to testify on behalf of the consultant to counteract the line of questioning. "At what point does this start to affect my reputation?" wonders Chinquina.
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.
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.
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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.