Eye on the Everglades
Ron Jones was startled to see police lights strobing in his rearview mirror. The microbiologist, whose tenured professorship at Florida International University had just drawn to a close, is nothing if not meticulous and conscientious, definitely not the type to run a stop sign or even exceed the speed limit. Startled turned to shocked when he found out he was being stopped for car theft. "When it dawned on me what was happening," Jones recalls, "I started to wish the officer would arrest me so people would understand how stupid this situation had gotten."
The car he was driving -- a Ford Excursion owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and used by FIU's Southeast Environmental Research Center -- had been reported stolen by the university. What's more, someone from the school had called police in Plantation, where Jones was living at the time, to alert them that the stolen car would probably be in that area. Sending the cops after a tenured professor isn't standard operating procedure, even in the vitriolic world of academia, but it was a measure of the resentment felt by some of Jones's colleagues and bosses over nearly two decades of working with the notoriously eccentric scientist.
Jones was on Broward Boulevard that September evening last year, headed to a U-Haul store to pick up packing boxes for the move from FIU to his new job at Portland (Oregon) State University, when the police pulled him over. The 47-year-old professor's physical slightness stands in contrast to his well-known and relentless fusillade of words, a stream-of-consciousness monologue that requires some concentration to navigate. One can only imagine what the officer thought when confronted with this khaki-clad academic going on about the Army Corps of Engineers. "Finally," Jones says, "I gave him the phone number for the Corps' lead attorney and he just walked away and laughed."
One can also only imagine what might have prompted Jones's former employer to, in effect, accuse him of grand theft auto -- a felony. A certain amount of infighting is expected in higher education (what with professors' overblown egos and propensity for typical white-collar neuroses), and squabbles over equipment and offices are de rigueur when a professor leaves a university, but the conflict between Jones and FIU approached absurdity over the course of 2003. Some would say the situation is especially ridiculous given Jones's reputation as a leading Everglades scientist, a reputation that brought millions in grant money and equipment to FIU and the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC), which Jones founded in 1993.
It would be natural for a university that sits on the edge of the Everglades to make every effort to hold onto a man who is one of the world's premier Everglades researchers, whose contacts reach to the highest levels of agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, at a time when Congress is poised to pour eight billion dollars into restoring the River of Grass. Jones pioneered some of the most significant water-quality research in South Florida over the past two decades, and will likely attract a substantial portion of those billions as the federally mandated Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan gets under way. But that money will not be flowing to Florida International University.
Jones describes his decision to quit FIU after eighteen years as "entirely family-oriented." But seeking out a more family-friendly place to live seems to be only a piece of the puzzle after hearing Jones repeatedly make references to his disgust at FIU's academic standards and incompetent bureaucracy. Despite his disdain, in July 2002 Jones did offer to let the university keep much of the equipment and grant money that was in his name -- if they would let him continue to supervise some of the work in the water-quality lab at SERC.
The answer to Jones's proposal was a resounding No, followed by warnings that he was only to clean out his office under police supervision. After delays on both sides, the university confiscated everything in his office, including family photos (Jones has since regained possession of his personal effects).
FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo insists the situation is straightforward: "From where I sit, you have a director of a center who did fabulous work and now is gone."
Everglades politics colors Everglades science, right down to the microbes. Even lowly algae is loaded with political ramifications, as in the case of the algae blooms that plague Florida Bay, one of the main Everglades outflow points, situated at the southern tip of Everglades National Park. Beginning in the mid-Eighties algae clouded the clear waters. Tens of thousands of acres of sea grass died as a result. Scientists descended, but their work ultimately became ideological ammunition: Commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental advocates, and citrus and sugar cane farmers (whose fertilizers, according to some scientists, were the root cause of the noxious growth) all had a stake in the results. Research papers were held up as proof for or against Big Sugar's role, or used to accuse governmental agencies of mismanagement.
Jones came to FIU and the Everglades in 1985, an assistant professor with a brand-new Ph.D. in microbiology from Oregon State University. "I was from small-town Illinois, and Jacques Cousteau was a big inspiration -- I wanted to be a marine biologist," he says. "Then, when I was a kid, we went on vacation to Florida one time and I was enamored of the place." Jones made his way back to Florida in the late Seventies, receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of West Florida in Pensacola. By the time he made his way to Florida International University, the Everglades had become a disturbing conundrum: well loved but damaged, plagued by problems but of little interest to researchers.
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.
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.
"When you know Ron," he says, "you have to decide one thing first of all: 'Can I put up with Ron's eccentricities long enough to reap the benefits of his genius?' He has no tolerance for people who are stupid, and some people feel inferior around him." Rice notes that for years Jones irritated some people at FIU. The festering animosity, he surmises, was enough that the school was willing to exchange millions in federal grant money for the satisfaction of saying, "See ya, and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out!"
"Even though FIU had this opportunity to become the center of Everglades-restoration research," Rice says, "to become the academic, scientific center with Ron as a leader, built around this nucleus of SERC, they just couldn't get past his eccentricities."
Jim Fourqurean, chairman of FIU's biology department and one of fifteen faculty members who work at SERC, believes that even if Jones had been allowed to continue in some supervisory capacity he wouldn't have been able to tolerate working at SERC under a different director. "In my opinion, Dr. Jones's management style may have been successful when this was a fledgling program, but his style was incompatible with the scientists who now work in the Southeast Environmental Research Center," Fourqurean wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "Also it is my opinion that Dr. Jones's ego would not permit him to remain at FIU and work under someone appointed to replace him."
Rice and Fourqurean differ on how Jones's rift with the school will affect the research center's future. "Over the last ten years Ron has largely been a figurehead," Fourqurean contends. "Other people here have developed reputations with the funding agencies independent of Ron." Rice says otherwise: "There's plenty of good science being done at SERC and other places, but to really build a program you have to build around someone with extraordinary capabilities."
The moral and intellectual conviction with which Jones approaches life is founded on two seemingly contradictory principles: scientific adherence to empirical proof, and the absolute faith of a devout Christian. Both are conversational staples with Jones, and he often offers moral or intellectual proofs to bolster his arguments. For instance he talks about his Everglades research as a moral obligation rather than a personal interest, saying, "If I were independently wealthy, I'd probably study octopus behavior because I'm fascinated by them. But as long as the public's paying, I feel I should do something that benefits people." And later: "Work in the Everglades is something I feel is a calling. To me the Everglades is not just an interesting place -- I believe there's a purpose for me being there."
Jones and his wife Elizabeth are Apostolic Christians, part of a conservative movement whose doctrines include literal interpretation of the Bible. Worldwide membership is estimated at 11,000. The couple, who now have six children, never dated; they were married after Jones asked church elders for permission to wed her. "My faith is the nucleus of everything in my life," he says, adding that his family is happier after the move to Oregon, which has a larger community of Apostolics.
It is exactly when Jones professes his faith, however, that the tension between his religion and his love for his work is most evident. "My work was taking over my life," he says, "but now that I've moved to Oregon I can have my priorities straight again." Yet he flies to Florida constantly for research he conducts as a private contractor [Editor's note: The author worked for several months at a water-quality test site supervised by Jones] and for his role as a key witness for the Miccosukee Tribe in its lawsuit against the state, which charges that Florida is violating its own Everglades water-quality standards. He's also on-call nearly all the time, constantly on his cell phone as he commutes between Miami, Tallahassee, and Oregon.
But Jones will be making fewer trips to Miami in 2004. After months of what he calls conflicting messages and bizarre assertions from FIU attorney Mendoza ("They told me that unless I cleaned out my office, they were going to throw my stuff away; then they said they were going to arrest me if I showed up"), his dispute with FIU seems to be winding to a close. About $200,000 in equipment and roughly $1.2 million in yearly grant money through 2005 is following Jones to Portland State University. The equipment transfer is still being worked out, even though Jones officially left FIU in September. He has chosen to forego legal action, despite the luxury of a high-powered attorney in Dexter Lehtinen. "Obviously I have a good attorney," Jones says, "but the bad part is, we have a lot better things to do. I have people who could take those [FIU] people out in a nanosecond, but they don't have time to do it and I don't either."
Time was one of the deciding factors in Jones's departure from FIU. His work schedule became increasingly hectic as SERC grew and ate into the hours he reserved for family and church. But the university's administrative bureaucracy, which he describes as exceedingly inefficient, left him with even less time for work or family, feeding his dissatisfaction. "FIU doesn't have the infrastructure to support people who bring in a lot of money," he argues. "You have to do your own accounting." As more money began rolling in, the lack of management assistance with the grants became intolerable. "They've screwed up my salary, my benefits, my insurance," Jones grumbles. "They can't handle that stuff -- and they think they can manage a six-million-dollar grant?"
He didn't decide to leave in an instant; Jones cites a frustration that grew over the years. His refusal to discuss all but a few colleagues also indicates that he was at least cognizant of some of the resentment directed at him. "I won't say anything bad about SERC," Jones says. "I mean, I love SERC, okay? And I love a lot of those people. And I won't say anything about the ones I don't love."
There is some disagreement over how much the loss of Jones's presence will cost SERC in grant money. Jones believes the center will eventually lose as much as four million dollars annually, while Santana-Bravo says, "No one can look into a crystal ball." The Army Corps of Engineers offered FIU the option of retaining a three-million-dollar grant on the condition that the school let Jones supervise some of the work, according to spokeswoman Amanda Olafson. "They declined," she says.
They also declined to talk much about the director of a prominent research institution resigning just when his prestige could have helped the university tap into the eight billion dollars committed to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Repeated calls to Mendoza's office were never returned by anyone other than Santana-Bravo. Calls to the office of FIU president Modesto "Mitch" Maidique met with the same response. Few at SERC -- employees, students, or administrative staffers -- had anything to say, possibly because they want to stay out of the wrangling over laboratory equipment, and possibly to avoid publicly choosing sides. After all, if Jones's treatment at the hands of Mendoza is any indication, the administration is not afraid to bully undesirables.
Meanwhile life at Portland State University has been a pleasant surprise for Jones. "I spent my entire professional career at FIU, so I know how it works," he explains. "PSU is a comparable size and also fairly young, so I thought things would be the same. But the whole bureaucracy is so much more efficient. And the students! At FIU you go to the student lounge and it's so loud you can't even think. Here you go to a lounge and the students are studying. Studying, not dancing."
Jones will continue to work in South Florida, though not with the research center he founded. And he'll continue to influence Everglades policy as a highly respected scientist, though FIU will not share the spotlight with him. "Ron's an important guy, and he's been an important guy for years," Terry Rice says. "He's also a person who's very different from your average individual. At FIU, they just couldn't get past that."
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