A Key Battle
They all want to ride a wild horse," says Taras Lyssenko, explaining why women love him. "But if you ride a wild horse, is it wild any more? I basically don't stay with a woman longer than one night. If they want to cook breakfast, okay, but that's it. I'm a womanizer. It's the first thing I tell any woman I meet. If they're from around here, I don't have to tell them because they already know."
In the back seat of Lyssenko's single-engine Piper Cherokee, the latest target of opportunity giggles at the pilot's self-description and pulls a cloud of chestnut hair back from her forehead, the better to gaze out the cockpit window. Beyond and below the Florida Keys arc north toward Miami and south toward Key West, a majestic archipelago floating in aquamarine.
"Here, take the controls," Lyssenko says over the motor's drone. "Bring it down. Lets get a good look at the enemy."
The plane drops to a thousand feet, roaring in over Florida Bay toward the town of Marathon, aiming at a finger of land that is home to the office of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Lyssenko, who at various times calls himself a conservative Republican, an ultralibertarian, a survivalist, and a Renaissance man, relates how he and a friend buzzed the place at 300 feet a few weeks ago, hoping to scare some of the federal and state workers as they walked to their cars.
In his younger days, the 36-year-old Lyssenko lost his pilot's license once or twice, and has crash-landed this particular plane three times. A scar on his left forearm testifies to a close call with a burning helicopter back when he served as an army Ranger. There are other scars too, from years salvaging navy aircraft in the Great Lakes and from boyhood summers working in the logging camps of northern Ontario.
Lyssenko speaks in a clipped Midwestern voice full of yuhs and uhs. Everyone should see the Keys from the air, he insists, and the notion is hard to dispute on this morning of bright sunshine and light winds. Beyond Marathon the plane bears east over the Atlantic, turning to parallel North America's only coral barrier reef. The reef, with its surrounding universe of seagrass meadows and mangrove islands, makes up the marine equivalent of a tropical rain forest, fragile and biologically diverse, spectacularly beautiful, home to 6000 species of plants, fish, and invertebrates. But Lyssenko's tour-guide banter doesn't dwell on the wonders of nature.
"Pink and lime-green scuba divers everywhere, pissing all over the reef!" he snorts, banking the plane around Alligator Reef lighthouse. Lyssenko is predicting how the reef will soon be overrun by parasitic "ecotourists," and he goes on to explain a pet theory: that suntan oil and urine, imposed by weekend aquanauts, is more damaging to a coral reef than, say, standing on it. The fact that the latter trauma has been much publicized and the former ignored is proof to him of a larger phenomenon -- that the science on which government natural-resource policy is based may be much shakier than the public realizes, and is dangerously susceptible to political uses by "environmental wackos."
Stretching out farther than the eye can see, the water below the airplane is webbed with invisible demarcations. On November 16, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, making 2800 square miles of bay and ocean the United States's thirteenth marine sanctuary. At the time the designation seemed narrowly tailored to prevent oil exploration, to recognize the reef as a threatened national treasure, and to offer some response to a series of ship groundings on the reef that occurred in the last days of 1989.
Since then the sanctuary has remained mostly a mental construct. Boundary lines have been drawn around 2.4 million acres of water -- a vastitude the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined -- but the practical effect of the statutory designation is negligible. That will all change later this month when Florida's governor and cabinet vote on the sanctuary's management plan and pass it on to Congress for final approval. The details of how to manage the sanctuary are expressed in a sprawling, 800-page document that addresses everything from water quality improvement to boating regulations, and which, in Lyssenko's view, is a diabolical blueprint for a federal takeover of the culture, economy, and political autonomy of America's southernmost county.
Government officials and environmentalists in the Keys have spent the better part of seven years trying but failing to build a consensus for the sanctuary through an exhausting series of public hearings, advisory council meetings, and draft revisions -- what the sanctuary's superintendent calls "the most extensive public participation program ever in the history of the federal government." Along the way Lyssenko and a cadre of vocal opposition activists known as the Conch Coalition have sought to sabotage and dismantle the sanctuary at every turn, doing their part at the local level to stall the final showdown that now looms in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
At the moment Lyssenko and his confreres are riding a tidal wave of jubilation. On November 5 Keys voters turned out in record number for a referendum on the sanctuary. When the polls closed, 55 percent had voted against it. At a distance the result seemed incomprehensible to many, so incomprehensible that for a full hour on election night two Miami TV stations misreported the results as a 55-45 pro-sanctuary mandate.
Though legally meaningless, the nonbinding referendum was a titanic public relations fiasco for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the Department of Commerce charged with managing the saltwater behemoth. The government's failure to enlist the support of even a bare majority of voters is shared by large out-of-town environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Marine Conservation, and the Nature Conservancy, all of which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Keys and badly fumbled their attempts to influence public opinion in favor of the management plan.
For Lyssenko and the 1500-member Conch Coalition, the vote was a long-overdue vindication -- one they believe has given new momentum to their cause just when they need it most. If the two-story sanctuary office represents the command bunker of an invading northern army, the waters below the Piper Cherokee may soon be Paradise Lost. In Lyssenko's view the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will put the last nail in the coffin of Monroe County's two oldest industries, treasure salvaging and commercial fishing; complete the tourist-driven commercialization of Monroe County; rob the populace of their property rights; waste their tax dollars; and put them at the mercy of federal agents packing Glock 9 millimeters. The idea of a national marine sanctuary, so innocuous at first glance, is a vast fraud that, according to Lyssenko, will fail to protect the environment, yet will create another permanent tier of wasteful government bureaucracy -- one that promises to expand its power in the Keys as year follows year.
Lyssenko points out propeller scars cut into a patch of sea grass. The national marine sanctuary provides harsh penalties for careless boaters who cause such damage, based on the currently accepted belief that prop scars take years to heal. Lyssenko thinks this is a wild exaggeration and claims that in his frequent airborne sorties he has seen propeller damage repair itself in mere weeks. The reef and its surrounding waters are uniquely precious, but are they as threatened as we imagine? No, says Lyssenko: The purported environmental crisis in the Keys is a clever justification for a power grab organized by big government acting in collusion with big environmentalism.
Below, a fishing boat loaded down with lobster traps is moving across Florida Bay toward home. Behind the vessel there's a cloudy trail kicked up by diesel engines running hard in ten feet of water, a phenomenon known as "puffing." Less than one percent of the sanctuary is now earmarked as a no-fishing zone (down from an initial twenty percent proposed five years ago). But there are other, more subtle ways in which commercial fishermen will be hurt by the new rules, Lyssenko says. Common phenomena like puffing may be curtailed by the feds, making commercial boat operation more and more burdensome. But is the sandy plume behind the fishing boat actually harmful? Should it be evaluated in absolute terms? Or in relative terms, based on how much protecting the environment might cost local industry?
Bringing his plane in for a perfect landing, Lyssenko comments on the current milieu in Monroe County: "We've had seven years of the most unbelievable weirdness that I think anyone's ever seen in this country. A lot of people, like the commercial fishermen, would like to settle this whole thing the way things were settled 200 years ago. I'll admit it, I sometimes would like to feel my fist connecting with someone's face. But it hasn't happened."
Since arriving in the Keys from Chicago four seasons ago, Taras Lyssenko -- treasure hunter, gadfly, dilettante newspaper publisher, and acknowledged carpetbagger -- has lost little time becoming the béte noire of local environmentalists -- at best a hyperactive boy running in circles through a room filled with fine crystal, at worst, to quote one federal official, "a dangerous radical with serious terrorist potential."
To cross the Monroe County line these days is to step through the political looking glass into a world of paranoia, death threats, wiretapping, slashed car tires, and sabotaged fishing traps; of federal officials hung in effigy and coconuts thrown in anger at county commissioners; of hot words and near bloodshed in parking lots outside public meetings and a daily drumbeat of overwrought accusations and wild propaganda. Consider:
*A note stuck to a front door with a hunting knife at the home of commercial fisherman Karl Lessard, formerly a federal appointee to the sanctuary's citizens advisory council: "You're the son of a bitch who sold us out -- we're watching you."
*An October 12, 1996, e-mail from anti-sanctuary newspaper columnist Ben Taylor to Billy Causey, NOAA's top sanctuary official: "You have a problem -- a major problem -- you have lied to the public -- you are dealing with crooks -- I have all the documentation I need to put all of you in jail. You are a coward in my mind trying to cover up the truth to serve your own purposes.... I will now expose you for the criminal you are. You've lied on numerous occasions and I will prove it to the public. Read me in the Chronicle this week. It is only the beginning. I will not rest until you are behind bars."
*Images captured on videotape: Sanctuary officials leave a public hearing at the Buccaneer Resort Hotel in Marathon. A gauntlet of rowdies armed with conch-shell cudgels boos them loudly. Someone hurls a coconut at County Commissioner Alison Fahrer, Monroe's first "green" politician and a staunch sanctuary supporter. The coconut misses, but not by much. Meanwhile, anti-sanctuary activists string up a pair of dummies representing NOAA's two principal managers.
*An exchange: In the Marathon Visitors Center, in the heart of opposition country, a traveler asks for directions to the marine sanctuary office. The response, offered with a straight face: "You're not going to blow 'em up, are you?"
"There has been more of a level of this sort of thing than in any public debate I've ever seen," says J. Allison DeFoor, a former Monroe County sheriff and state attorney. "From the beginning the Conch Coalition was stirring things up. Even when I was prosecuting drug smugglers down here, we had an understanding with the dopers that violence was unacceptable. This is a place without a history of political violence, so any level of it represents something new."
The sanctuary's resident superintendent acknowledges having increased security precautions in the Keys during the current imbroglio: "There were times when things were said, particularly after the Oklahoma City bombing, and we were required to be more cautious," says Causey. "People started becoming more and more aware that the Conch Coalition had further linkages. Following the Oklahoma bombing, it would have been remiss of any federal manager to allow people to come into the sanctuary office and say things like 'This could blow up in your face,' or 'This thing is a powder keg.' I simply told our staff that they needed to be more alert, be aware of whether they were being followed, that sort of thing."
Back-country fishing guide Mike Collins, who serves as chairman of the sanctuary's citizens advisory council, weighs in: "This has been an extremely divisive issue. It's done a tremendous amount of damage to this community, and the damage has been based on a massive amount of disinformation. The disenfranchised -- trailer park dwellers, commercial fishermen on the edge -- people like that are being used as cannon fodder."
Like other sanctuary proponents, Collins stops short of naming Lyssenko or individual Conch Coalition members as guilty of political thuggery. Evidence is lacking, and some of the most talked-about incidents lose their drama on closer inspection. For example:
*Did Karl Lessard fall prey to political saboteurs? The recipient of several telephone death threats and the hunting knife note, Lessard says someone burgled and damaged 4000 of his lobster traps in 1995 while he served on the sanctuary advisory council. But because the culprit wasn't caught, it's not entirely clear whether the motive was political. Ditto with an incident involving John Ogden, an oceanographer who walked out of an advisory council meeting one night to find all four of his car tires flattened.
*Did Conch Coalition president Danny Yeider threaten the life of a U.S. congressman? Yeider rose to address Rep. Peter Deutsch at a public meeting in 1995. Misquoting a Civil War-era speech, he pointed out that there are three boxes that good citizens use to effect political change. "I'm using one right now, the soap box," a witness recalls Yeider saying. "We will also use the ballot box, and I hope we never get to the point where we use a box of bullets." The congressman became alarmed. But after the FBI questioned Yeider, he went his way sans handcuffs. Today even foes of the Conch Coalition feel that Deutsch perceived a threat where none existed, and that Yeider's comments were well within First Amendment boundaries.
*Did Taras Lyssenko promise to squash a fellow treasure hunter when he tried to rent a building to sanctuary officials? No, the sheriff's department concluded, after reviewing a tape from Joe Kimbell's telephone answering machine. At the time, Kimbell was representing a group of Keys treasure salvagers in negotiations with the sanctuary. Lyssenko saw Kimbell's real estate transaction as an act of betrayal. "Every treasure hunter was pissed off to the hilt," Lyssenko notes. "But they're Southern gentlemen. They might say, 'Joe, that was totally unacceptable.' What I said on the tape was 'Joe! You're a fucking asshole!' I have a tendency to be vulgar at times." (Lyssenko also mentioned on the tape that Kimbell's roadside treasure museum was so ugly it ought to be bulldozed.) The incident didn't quite end there, however. In a bizarre twist, another audio cassette turned up. Those who have heard it say the second tape is a recording of Kimbell speaking on the phone with sanctuary superintendent Causey, playing the original tape of Lyssenko and complaining that his life was in peril. The second tape was mailed to the Conch Coalition anonymously, leaving unanswered the question of who recorded it in the first place in apparent violation of state and federal wiretapping laws.
*Did Dave Holtz, chairman of Monroe County's Democratic Party and director of the Center for Marine Conservation, offer to smash Lyssenko's face? Or vice versa? The two men had been on cordial terms up until a public meeting a few weeks ago. "Everyone sat around and gave their views," Holtz recalls. "After it was over, I was walking out of the room with a friend of mine and Taras suggested I come outside and we settle this mano a mano. When we got outside, I told him to get out of my face. One of the sheriff's deputies came and broke it up."
Lyssenko says the incident began when Elliot Baron, a restaurateur and environmentalist leader of the pro-sanctuary group Last Stand, wrote an article suggesting Lyssenko was linked to the Moonies. Lyssenko called Baron and left several phone messages, annoying Baron's wife. Lyssenko: "At the meeting I look over and Elliot says, 'You call my house again and bother my wife I'm going to break your face.' Then Dave Holtz says to me, 'Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you.' When the meeting was over I went outside and Baron had taken off. I went up to Holtz and said 'What are you going to do to me?' This cop jumped in and said to me: 'I witnessed him threaten you inside the meeting; if you want this guy locked up, fine.' I said, 'I'd rather pound his head in.' The cop said, 'I know that but I'm not going to let you do it.' Basically, I think Dave Holtz has lost it. He was the tactical strategist for the pro-sanctuary side leading up to the referendum, and he looks like shit right now."
There is no touching the bottom of this quagmire, and law enforcement personnel in the Keys have largely shrugged and moved on to less muddlesome matters. But if some of the incidents swirling around the sanctuary fight look like frat-house infantilism, they nonetheless illustrate two verities. The first is that despite its causeways and Kwik Stops, Monroe County remains a string of isolated islands that rely heavily on gossip -- the "coconut telegraph" -- and thereby live a civic life through stories that are as much apocryphal as factual. The second is that the political atmosphere around the sanctuary issue has become polarized and has the potential for serious combustion.
Mike Collins: "It's a big leap from what we've seen so far to serious violence. But what you're really afraid of is some guy who's already on the edge, his truck is about to be repossessed, and pretty soon he reacts out of fear and frustration. The Conch Coalition has done a good job scaring people, and the people they've scared have some real reasons to be scared. The demographics and the economics of the Keys are shifting in a way that makes it hard for low-income people to survive down here."
Dave Holtz: "I think Taras and the Conch Coalition feel that if they can stir things up and cause some sort of violent confrontation it will be to their benefit politically. Yes, I think he is purposely trying to foment violence in the Keys. This is an odd place in the world. You have an area where people have moved to get away -- iconoclasts, individualists, nonconformists, roughnecks. And guess what? They've moved to one of the most regulated places in the country. This is the only county in Florida that's been designated an Area of Critical State Concern, a county where the state has said, essentially, 'You are in receivership. We don't trust you to manage your own affairs.'
"The individualists are thrown together with another bunch of people: old folks, liberals who like the environment and the warm weather," Holtz says. "Then you have that other twenty percent of the population who grew up here, who welcomed everyone into their home and find they have to leave because they can't afford to live here any more. It's a hell of a social stew. Even in normal times things are on edge here. And these aren't normal times."
According to Michele Wells-Usher, Conch Coalition vice president and long-time spokeswoman, the real intimidation and misinformation campaign emanates from NOAA and its green allies, who have tried at every turn to ostracize and marginalize the sanctuary opposition -- a strategy she believes has backfired.
"The reason there hasn't been real violence yet is because of people like Taras and this group right here," Wells-Usher says. "We have been the catalyst for control -- not the sanctuary officials and not the enviros. When people were getting mad and getting violent, we said 'We will go before Congress, we will take this issue to a referendum, we will do whatever it takes to fight it.' And we did all those things.
"Four years ago Last Stand's environmentalist president was put in jail for holding the Truman Annex building hostage in Key West and threatening to blow it up, okay?" Wells-Usher says. "And yet Last Stand was the group that came out with ads accusing the Conch Coalition of being extremist radical disinformation mongers with a tendency toward violence. I am still waiting for anybody to give me substantiation of any of these allegations against our members."
County Commissioner Mary Kay Reich, a charter member of the Conch Coalition, was re-elected the same day voters rejected the sanctuary at the polls. She warns that Tallahassee and Washington would do well to heed the sentiment expressed in the referendum. If not? "Then I think, if anything, we're going to see an escalation, a violent reaction. How violent, I wouldn't even hazard to guess."
How did things get to this point?
"From the beginning," says DeFoor, the ex-sheriff, "this whole thing was more of a spiritual issue than a practical one."
Perhaps. In the aftermath of the November 5 vote, federal officials and civilian supporters of the sanctuary have put forth the notion that people simply didn't understand what they were voting for, that the referendum was an irrational expression of anti-government hostility or the misguided product of anti-sanctuary propaganda. But whatever else it is, the sanctuary conflict is about two sharply defined and radically different world views -- an ideological war between outsiders superimposed on a long-simmering, home-grown culture clash.
The tenets of environmentalism are by now such a familiar part of life that it's hard to remember they once seemed radical. In the past twenty years, Congress has passed 300 major laws supporting the idea of collective control and stewardship of natural resources for the common good. Less familiar, but far from extinct, are the conservative beliefs about private property and individual liberty to which environmentalism was a reaction in the first place.
The king of the Conch Republic sits in a high-backed executive recliner, chain smoking Merits and watching tourists through the one-way security glass at his treasure museum in Key West. At first it seems that the king's chair must rest atop a hidden platform, for he looms over his subjects. But there is no platform; the king is simply tall, and preternaturally long-waisted. He is old, too, and moves with the economy of exhaustion.
He wears a gold medallion crusted with emeralds, and a pair of gold pens are stuck in the breast pocket of his brown guayabera. Behind him a blue banner proclaims the existence of the Conch Republic; before him lies a red velvet crown and conch-shell scepter. In 1982 Monroe County facetiously seceded from the United States and elected its own imperial court, now presided over by the world's most famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, whom many believe to be the richest man in Key West. Twelve years ago Fisher found the Atocha, a wrecked Spanish galleon with cargo worth as much as $400 million. The tourists wandering on the other side of the one-way mirror are looking at trinkets from the Atocha's trove -- gold and silver jewelry, and emeralds torn out of the New World four centuries ago.
Though Taras Lyssenko may be the most boisterous of sanctuary opponents, County Commissioner Reich, Key West businessman Ed Swift, and treasure hunter Fisher are the Conch Coalition's highest-profile cheerleaders. Fisher speaks about the federal government and the sanctuary takeover: "It's like that Arab saying: If you let the camel put his nose in the tent, the next thing you know he's sleeping with you and shitting in your bed. My main interest is I want them to leave me alone and let me treasure hunt. If it's in international waters, beyond the three-mile limit, then it's finders keepers. And they were foreign ships passing by on their way to another foreign country. With this new deal, they're just trying to take all the treasure, 100 percent."
Fisher guesses that a hundred million dollars' worth of booty lies inside the sanctuary's boundaries. As it stands, the sanctuary's final management plan discourages treasure salvage by requiring lengthy permit applications and complicated archaeological and environmental assessments at every stage of the recovery process. The sanctuary reserves the right to issue emergency decrees halting all salvaging, and in fact did so five years ago, suing Fisher for damaging sea grass off Coffin's Patch as he worked what he believes to be his next big find.
Governments and the academic establishment have neither the funding nor the stomach for the dicey treasure hunting game, Fisher contends; and restrictions such as the ones imposed by the sanctuary drive salvagers into the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, leaving archaeologically precious underwater resources undiscovered.
"The ones that want it is the Nature Conservancy," Fisher says, referring to America's wealthiest environmental organization, whose Key West offices are only a block away. "They want all the oil rights and the mineral rights and treasure rights. They're using the government as a tool. They're very powerful. I'm sure that they're the ones that directed NOAA to sue me. They're the ones that hired the expert witnesses to testify and lie against me. I got to stand up for my rights. What I want them to do is drop the lawsuit and rescind the sanctuary and leave."
The king launches into a long disquisition about what needs to be done in the Everglades: Canals should be dammed in Central Florida's sugar country, holding tanks created, and the water from agricultural areas treated with aeration and filtration and genetically engineered algae.
The Everglades is a complex mess, yes indeed, and Everglades problems have an impact on the waters of Monroe County. But then Fisher says something alarming: The government itself intentionally engineered the mess, keeping flood gates of pollution open when it could have shut them years ago. Why would the government do such a thing?
"I think the Nature Conservancy people did it to trash the economy of the Florida Keys so they could buy up all the real estate," he says. "I hate to take them on, but if I don't they're just going to put me out of business. I had to cancel two treasure hunting expeditions, $750,000 each, and give the money back to investors. So that took money out of the local economy right there.
"You see, the Nature Conservancy gets the government to confiscate land, then they buy it, and then they sell it back to the government at a profit. They work hand in glove. When they sell land to the government, they keep the oil and mineral rights. They're not only one of the largest real estate companies in the world, they're also into oil and minerals heavy-duty, and they want to get into the treasure business."
As an afterthought, Fisher says, "This information I'm telling you is not dreamed up by me, it's written in a book. And I concur with everything that's in there."
The book in question, which King Mel passes out like a party favor, is called Trashing the Economy. The bulk of its 659 pages is a detailed compendium of how America's biggest environmental groups get their money. What they do with that money, according to authors Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, is undermine democracy and the free enterprise system by throwing private-property owners off their land, eliminating jobs, and lobbying Congress for more and more unreasonable eco-regulation. Arnold and Gottlieb believe environmentalism has long since lost its mind and become a tyrannical special interest bloc focused on the growth and enrichment of its own institutions.
What Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was to the environmental movement, Trashing the Economy is to the American environmental backlash known as the Wise Use Movement. The first 78 pages of the book is a libertarian treatise asserting the sanctity of property, describing American environmentalism as a socialist aberration and affirming what the authors believe to be the principal sin of organized tree huggers: their failure to consider the economic effects of environmental policy. Trashing the Economy discusses the twin tools of manipulation used by environmentalists (guilt, and fear of imminent ecological crisis) and promotes the concept of "regulatory taking" -- the idea that property owners should be compensated by the government for adverse economic effects caused by laws designed to protect the environment.
The Wise Use Movement arose in the Plains states and the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and was inspired by angry ranchers and loggers feeling the pinch of environmental regulations. It arrived in the Florida Keys on May 1, 1994, when Ron Arnold stepped off a plane at Miami International Airport wearing a tank top and shorts, drove south in a rental car, and wound up joining the nocturnal entourage that follows Mel Fisher up and down Key West's Duval Street from bar to bar.
Among pro-sanctuary activists, it is common knowledge that Taras Lyssenko is a covert operative of the Wise Use Movement, and that the Conch Coalition is little more than a cell of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Ron Arnold's West Coast libertarian think tank. (This is what Causey, the sanctuary superintendent, refers to when speaking of the Conch Coalition's "further linkages.") But to consider Arnold's sojourn in the Keys is to put things into better perspective.
Lyssenko himself grudgingly paid for Arnold's plane ticket, after Michele Wells-Usher ran across Trashing the Economy in an airport bookshop. Wells-Usher was planning a rally to jump-start anti-sanctuary efforts, and she hoped Arnold's presence would invigorate the attendees. "I was completely overwhelmed," Wells-Usher says of Trashing the Economy. "All the suspicions I'd had were encompassed, not only encompassed but substantiated in this book. It was a watershed. I had no idea this stuff was going on anywhere else. So we wanted to meet the guru and talk to a leader."
Arnold remembers Lyssenko and the Conch Coalition this way: "The most ragtag damn bunch of people I've ever run into. We drank a lot of beer and shot the breeze. It was just a hoot! If anyone has a good argument for anarchy, they're it. My impression was these guys are basically beach bums, characters out of a Tom Robbins book."
If Arnold found the anti-sanctuary activists amusing, they found him less so. "It became clear that he couldn't help us monetarily," Wells-Usher says. "And as soon as he got here he said, 'You'll never win because it's gone too far already.'"
Lyssenko, a teetotaler with a slim tolerance for boozehounds, notes: "As he was leaving he said not much got accomplished but he sure had fun hanging out with Mel in the bars," Lyssenko recalls.
But Lyssenko stayed in touch with Arnold and eventually received some assistance. Arnold gave the Conch Coalition the phone number of legendary Wise Use rabble-rouser Chuck Cushman, nicknamed "Rent-a-Riot" by his critics in honor of his talents as a rally organizer. (The Conch Coalition decided against inviting Cushman to the Keys.) At the time, the Conch Coalition was in the process of establishing itself as a nonprofit corporation, but the paperwork was pending. Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise lent the Keys activists some letterhead and helped the Conch Coalition raise a whopping $1400. Arnold stopped short of sharing his own 125,000-name mailing list.
"Did you ever see the movie Six Degrees of Separation? Okay, that's us," Arnold says, describing the relationship between anti-sanctuary forces in the Keys and the larger conservative Wise Use movement. "Are we linked? Sure. Did we ever help them raise any money? Yes, we did, but it was a drop in the bucket."
Arnold adds: "I went away from the Keys thinking, 'These guys are going to change a federal law? -- yeah, right!' The one piece of strategy that I did give them was that the best propaganda is the truth. Shaping public opinion is a matter of finding out what's going on that's wrong."
Lyssenko remembers Arnold's advice this way: "He suggested we concentrate on embarrassing the environmentalists. That's when I started filing all my Freedom of Information Act requests."
The air is the only place Taras Lyssenko seems relaxed. On land he roars up and down the Overseas Highway in a Ford Bronco, jumps from his car to harangue shopkeepers, pops in at public meetings, and gathers material for his monthly newspaper. If he sleeps it's at Bonefish Towers, a stark-looking condominium in Marathon that has the dubious honor of being the tallest structure in the Keys. Lyssenko eats considerable amounts of hard candy but only one meal a day, generally Thai food.
Not only is Lyssenko exhausting to be around, he can be exasperating. Two political tactics especially irritate his enemies. The first is his use of humor, which Lyssenko accuses environmentalists of lacking and which they accuse him of possessing in obnoxious measure. In March Lyssenko circulated a letter to newspaper editors (including his own, at the Chronicle of the Keys) announcing the formation of Taras for Timber Wolves, a "large international environmental coalition" devoted to expanding the range of his favorite endangered species. The organization, he wrote, hoped to establish a wolf preserve on Big Pine Key. (Big Pine is already a protected area for the tiny, endangered Key deer.)
Lyssenko's other favorite tactic is one he learned years ago in the mountains near Dahlonega, Georgia, at the hands of the U.S. Army. It's the first principal of counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare: Know your enemy. Lyssenko takes the idea somewhat literally. He not only makes frequent unannounced debating visits to the local offices of the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Center for Marine Conservation but tries to sleep with as many of the environmentalist groups' female staffers as possible. ("What can I say?" says Michele Wells-Usher. "He subscribes to the predator theory.")
Following Ron Arnold's visit to the Keys in 1994, Lyssenko's intelligence gathering took a less sensuous but even more effective form. He and Conch Coalition members began peppering NOAA and other federal agencies with faxed records requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.
"We started doing it every day," Lyssenko recalls, speaking of fax, not sex. "We asked for the names of all the sanctuary enforcement officers and the serial numbers on their Glocks. Other requests were more serious. We requested records for the 500 boat groundings that supposedly took place on the reef in the previous year, which were being used to help justify the need for the sanctuary. Not one paper did I ever get on that."
What Lyssenko did get was a thick packet of internal billing ledgers from the Nature Conservancy. The environmental organization had received grants from NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The money was supposed to be spent on public education. Instead, Lyssenko noted, the Nature Conservancy had illegally used a portion of the grant money to lobby legislators and to ghostwrite speeches for Keys politicians, commercial fishermen, and chamber of commerce representatives who testified before Congress in support of the national marine sanctuary. The documents also note that the Nature Conservancy "developed and directed a plan to counter opposition's push for a countywide referendum against the establishment of the sanctuary."
Lyssenko says he passed this "smoking gun" on to Keys Rep. Peter Deutsch; when Deutsch didn't respond, he got a better idea. Reaching from America's southernmost congressional district to its northernmost, Lyssenko called up Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the powerful Natural Resources Committee. Lyssenko's timing couldn't have been better: Young, considered the Wise Use Movement's best friend on Capitol Hill, had just assumed the chairmanship of the committee as part of a conservative sea change in Congress and was feeling his oats. He may also have sensed a chance to publicly embarrass Deutsch, a political foe who had aided past electoral efforts to dump him. "Young's office asked for everything we had, and we turned it over," Lyssenko says. "Before long, they initiated the investigation."
The Government Accounting Office concluded that the Nature Conservancy had in fact acted illegally by using federal grant money to influence Monroe County politics, and that NOAA had fallen down on the job by failing to monitor its grant money appropriately. And again the Conch Coalition was the beneficiary of some amazing timing: The GAO report was released four days before the November 5 sanctuary referendum and became the talk of the islands at the worst possible moment for embarrassed conservationists.
Mark Robertson, director of the Nature Conservancy in Key West, says the GAO report made a mountain out of a molehill. The brouhaha resulted from honest bookkeeping errors, he contends. "We did not have in place the timekeeping system that was required by those grants in 1993," says Robertson. "As a result we were not able to prove or disprove allegations that the money was spent improperly."
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.
"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."
Can Lyssenko and the Conch Coalition use their referendum victory as a springboard for further successes at the state and national level, achieving their ultimate goal of dismantling the sanctuary altogether? Even Ron Arnold, archdruid of America's anti-environmentalist groundswell, doubts it.
"I think they've alienated a hell of a lot of people in both places because they're noisy and rowdy," Arnold says. "If they win at either of those levels, it'll be a miracle. On the other hand, crazier things have happened, and I wouldn't totally discount them, these wild cowboys in the Keys.
Owing to a reporting error, the January 9 cover story, "A Key Battle," by Sean Rowe, contained an inaccurate statement made by Conch Coalition vice president Michele Wells-Usher, who asserted that the president of the environmental organization Last Stand was "put in jail for holding the Truman Annex building hostage in Key West and threatening to blow it up." Former Key West city commissioner Harry Powell, though a member of Last Stand, was not its president, nor did the organization endorse his seizure of a trailer in an attempt to block development of a condominium complex proposed by the navy. New Times regrets the error.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.