Inside Feature: John Featherstone

For John Featherstone, the nature tours were the best part of working at Arch Creek Park. The self-taught naturalist enjoyed leading groups of schoolchildren along winding trails, the leafy brown mulch crackling beneath their feet as he'd point out the flora and fauna in the shady, eight-acre green space off Biscayne Boulevard at 135th Street. Among the palm trees and the gumbo limbo and the sturdy live oaks draped with Spanish moss, Featherstone would explain to the kids how Indian settlers and white pioneers had found nourishment in leaves and berries, how they'd fashioned the subtropical forest into food, shelter, and clothing. "This is one of our native coffee plants," he would announce, leaning forward to touch the red berries on a bush. "We don't know if the Indians used it, but we do know the early Florida pioneers did. I always recommend planting this in somebody's yard. The mockingbirds love to eat it."

As the students would learn, the park played an important role in the early history of Dade County. About 500 B.C. Tequesta Indians settled on the the dry ridge that ran between a mangrove forest to the east and the vast swampland to the west. The site near Arch Creek, a mile-long waterway that runs along the western edge of what is now the park, was finally taken over by white settlers in the mid-Nineteenth Century's Seminole Wars. An old military trail that served as a supply line during the fighting passes through the park. In the late 1860s, a mill was constructed on a natural limestone bridge over the creek, with the aim of converting the roots of the coonti plant into arrowroot. The mill, one of Dade's first industries, failed, shutting down after less than a year. By the turn of the century, the wooded area had become a tourist destination and a popular picnic spot.

In the Fifties the site housed a trailer park; then the Chrysler Corporation bought the tract and attempted to build a used-car lot on it. That prospect horrified local residents, who organized and in 1973 got the state to purchase the land as an archaeological site. Nine years later the area became part of the county park system. To ensure that the tract would be properly maintained, the concerned citizens formed a group called the Arch Creek Trust, a nonprofit organization that would consult with park management to keep tabs on the site's operation.

The 39-year-old Featherstone says nothing made him happier than sharing his love of nature with young people. "Don't ever underestimate kids. They are smart, especially about animals," says the chubby-cheeked vegetarian, who always dresses in blue jeans and a work shirt and prefers a breakfast of black coffee and unfiltered Camel cigarettes to oatmeal or whole-wheat toast. Featherstone says he can't remember a time when he wasn't messing with plants and animals. He pores over books about nature and self-sufficiency, fascinated at how Native Americans and early white settlers lived off the land.

During his employment with the county, which lasted until early last year, Featherstone himself discovered a way to make Arch Creek Park meet his own modern-day needs. As a part-time aide at the park, he earned five dollars per hour, landscaping and maintaining the small woods and the one-room museum, organizing recreational activities, and cleaning the rest rooms. And in October 1990, after eight months on the job, he discovered a more lucrative method of working the land. He began leading elementary-school students on tours of the nature area during his off hours.

At the rate of three dollars per head, a three-hour walk spiced with historical tidbits about the park yielded as much as $180 - nearly equivalent to a week's salary for John Featherstone. All in all, it wasn't a bad way for a man to supplement his income.

Except for one thing: police say it wasn't legal.
Trained by the park naturalist, Patricia Cunningham, the aide had led tours as part of his duties, but all the revenue generated by the walks had gone to the county. "At the time I was impressed by his sincerity, interest in the environment, and knowledge about the outdoors and forestry," Cunningham recalls. "You have to understand, this was a five-dollar-an-hour job, not full time.

It is very difficult to find someone for five dollars an hour who's interested in the woods and Florida."

But after Cunningham left in March 1990 to take a job as a naturalist at Fern Forest Nature Center in Pompano Beach, Featherstone's experience at the park began to sour. He applied to replace his old boss, but he failed to meet the county's educational requirement of two years of college, and although he had worked for twenty years doing landscaping work and studying ecology, county personnel managers refused to alter qualifications for the opening. Frustrated by the snub, the part-time aide refused to lead any more tours. "If I'm not qualified to be the naturalist, I'm not going to give tours," he recalls saying to Ron Bell, a Metro Parks district supervisor.

The county didn't hire a park manager until January 1991, and when the new naturalist finally took over, Bell says he decided to transfer Featherstone to another park, both because of the employee's hurt feelings about being turned down for the job, and to cut down on labor costs at Arch Creek Park. Bell phoned Featherstone and told him he wouldn't be needed at the park any longer. He says he intended to meet with Featherstone face-to-face to tell him about the transfer he had in mind, but three requests for a meeting went unheeded.

That was because Featherstone, having taken Bell's statement to mean that he'd been fired, had applied to the state for unemployment benefits. At first the Florida Division of Unemployment Compensation denied payment, accepting a claim by the county that Featherstone had abandoned his job. The former aide appealed the denial, and this past August the agency's appeals commission overturned the ruling on the grounds that Featherstone had no way of knowing he was being reassigned and not fired. Since then Featherstone, who shares a home in Miami Shores with his mother, has collected $88 per week in unemployment benefits.

Featherstone's persistence has not yielded as much success in his dealings with the Arch Creek Trust, which he joined not long after he began working at the park. During the past year, along with fellow trust member Lawrence Forti, he has waged a pitched battle against the majority of the citizens' group, alleging that the trust violated its own bylaws in electing its 1991 officers and board members without properly notifying the membership, and accusing the organization of flouting state law by not allowing its members to photocopy records. At the heart of the struggle, says Featherstone, is the trust's desire for the county to purchase a one-acre tract north of the current park boundary, which he and Forti claim has "absolutely no value as ecologically sensitive, endangered, or useful land."

Featherstone and his friend Forti insist that the group is abdicating its responsibility as watchdog for Arch Creek Park. The trust, Forti says, "operates like a social club. They are not by any stretch of the imagination environmentalists." Adds Featherstone: "They're an absolutely do-nothing group."

Attorney Maureen Harwitz, a founding member of the 50-member trust who now acts as its legal counsel, counters by saying that the organization has worked hard to tackle a cleanup of polluted Arch Creek, negotiating with the South Florida Water Management District, which has jurisdiction over the waterway, to discover the sources of contamination in the creek and to eliminate them. To Featherstone's and Forti's accusations, she responds that most of the trust volunteers are sedate people, unaccustomed to working with zealots in their midst. "They're picking on these folks," she says. "They only want to harass us. They want to start a revolution, but they're starting it at the garden club."

Through fund-raising efforts, including proceeds from two annual plant-and-craft fairs, Harwitz says the trust has raised $10,000 toward the purchase of the one-acre tract north of the park. "That property is part of the original archaeological zone. There have been environmental surveys by the Department of Natural Resources and they have recommended its acquisition," Harwitz says of the site, which is covered by wild corn, oaks and palms, and weeds, and is currently a campsite for a small group of homeless men, who have pitched tents there.

The money raised by the trust could be added to public funds set aside for the purchase of environmentally endangered lands, if a selection committee recommends the acquisition of the Arch Creek parcel when it convenes this spring, says Emilie Young, director of the county's Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. "It is certainly to their credit that they a have raised some money to put toward the purchase. It is an expression of interest and willingness of the community to share in paying for the cost." The Metro Commission has the final say about what properties are bought.

Fed up with Featherstone and Forti, officers of the trust drew up a list of charges against the pair. Accusations against Forti included interrupting meetings, attempting to foil the parkland purchase, and saying the trust didn't have the funds it had pledged for the acquisition. Among other things, Featherstone had allegedly disrupted meetings, attempted to undermine the purchase of the property, and harassed people with unwanted phone calls. On December 9, the trust voted 28 to 6 to kick the two men out of the group.

One of the people who supported Featherstone is Mary Ward, who joined the trust in June. "The only legitimate charge against John was disrupting meetings," she says. "He did it because he felt something that was important to the trust was not being addressed by the board. Every time he would try to ask a question [about the land acquisition], the board would ignore him. Consequently, he got very loud, very insistent in asking his questions."

Part Two
Featherstone says he knows he often operates on a different wavelength from the more mainstream members of the Arch Creek Trust, or, for that matter, a lot of other people. Born in Michigan and reared in Miami, he quit high school at the age of seventeen, and moved to Ontario, Canada. He later returned to Miami to earn his diploma, and, dividing his time between Miami and Canada, he saved enough money in the Seventies to buy an abandoned farm 60 miles south of Ottawa, Canada, where he planted trees and an organic garden. He estimates that over the years he has planted hundreds of thousands of trees on his farm. In 1980 he purchased a small tract of land in Okeechobee County, where he planted more trees and experimented with raising shiitake mushrooms.

Featherstone, who says he smoked marijuana and used psychedelic drugs throughout the Seventies, was arrested for selling LSD to undercover Miami Beach police officers in 1985. Judge Ellen Morphonios withheld adjudication but levied a sentence of 90 days in the Dade County Stockade. Featherstone says he no longer uses illegal drugs. He also claims the official records of the bust are inaccurate, and provides an account of the incident that is highlighted by alleged CIA involvement. "Because of my work with other psychotropic drugs and different things I've done, they tried to incorporate me," he explains. "I really don't want to get into it. I was offered a job with that aspect in Canada with the Secret service and basically working with Sandoz LSD, the real pharmaceutical stuff from Switzerland. I can tell you things that are totally off the wall. Let's just say this, someone in the CIA payroll did not give it to me, but those were definitely drugs from the drug-testing branch of the CIA."

He offers no apologies for his dealings with the members of the Arch Creek Trust. "Sometimes it's uncomfortable to be put on the outside automatically," he says. "All I have to do is open my mouth. Sometimes I used to go to these trust meetings and they were so dead and boring, so self-serving, so moronic that a million one-liners kept coming into my mind. Once in a while I couldn't help myself, and some of them would come out."

It might be considered fitting that Featherstone refused to have his photograph taken to accompany this story. Then again, so did most of the rest of the people involved, including Lawrence Forti, Maureen Harwitz, and Ron Bell.

One of the allegations the Arch Creek Trust made against John Featherstone before his banishment was that he had impersonated a naturalist in front of a school group. A related, though not identical, charge has been leveled by the Metro-Dade police and county prosecutors.

Naturalist Jim Kunce, the new manager of Arch Creek Park, found out about Featherstone's off-duty nature walks late last summer, when an elementary-school teacher called and asked whether the aide was available to lead a tour. No, Kunce explained, Featherstone no longer worked there. But Kunce had a few questions of his own. Had Featherstone taken her class on a walk the past fall? Why, yes, the teacher answered. And how had the school paid for the tour? She told Kunce she had the canceled check.

Kunce says he had heard rumors about Featherstone's extracurricular activities that spring, when several people told him that the aide had talked about tours he had given the previous fall. "Of course we had zero evidence that that had occurred," the naturalist recalls. "When we had a few leads, we'd follow them up and nothing panned out."

Until the schoolteacher called. When Kunce called Ron Bell, the district supervisor for county parks, Bell instructed him to request copies of the canceled check. Meanwhile, another teacher called with the same request and the same story. Ron Bell and his supervisors examined the bank drafts, some of which had been made out to Arch Creek Park, but endorsed and cashed by Featherstone. They called in Metro-Dade police.

Michael Holmes, a detective in the Metro-Dade Police Department's public integrity squad, subpoenaed all of Featherstone's bank records from City National Bank, whose Biscayne Boulevard branch was across the street from Arch Creek Park. "I had to go around and gather all the canceled checks. It took me two months to wrap it up," says Holmes, who was able to trace a total of nine checks, totaling $1262, that Featherstone deposited into his bank account. On November 21 of last year, Holmes arrested Featherstone on a single count charge of grand theft. Set free under the county's pretrial-release program, Featherstone pleaded innocent to the charge, a third-degree felony.

Ron Bell says he was unaware of Featherstone's free-lancing. "I had heard rumors from a series of people, but I don't put much credibility in rumors," recalls Bell, an easygoing man with a deep tan who seems more like an aging lifeguard than the district supervisor for more than ten county parks. Had he known that an employee was keeping profits from tours, he would have immediately disciplined him. For one thing, Bell points out, Featherstone had no vendor's permit, which is required of anyone who wishes to sell anything in a county park. A fee for such a permit, negotiated between the vendor and a district supervisor, might be a flat rate, or a percentage of the vendor's gross. But Bell probably would not have granted Featherstone a permit even if he'd requested one, says the district supervisor, because he would have been offering a service the county already provided as a revenue raiser. Arch Creek Park nature walks had generated more than $1000 per month, which went toward defraying the annual $69,000 cost of operating the park.

Featherstone, who's trial is scheduled for April 6, insists he's no crook. He says he changed his mind about the nature walks in October 1990, when a teacher suggested he might go into business for himself as a tour guide. "I certainly didn't steal anything," he says. "To steal something would imply there was something there for me to steal. I created this. There was no naturalist there. There were no tours being given." Indeed, when Featherstone began leading his off-hours tours, no one else was offering the service at the park. Under the aegis of Patricia Cunningham, students toured the park at an average of 700 per month. Wes Wilson, another part-time park maintenance worker, rarely led walks for paying customers. Featherstone also says he was very open about the walks during the time he gave them. "If I was a thief, I had to be the bloody stupidest thief, because I told everybody about it," he insists.

When Cunningham happened to speak to him in November, she says Featherstone did talk about his new business. "I said, `John, don't do it.' I felt he would eventually get into trouble for it. He said he was just thinking about it."

Ron Bell acknowledges that Featherstone asked him what the county would require of someone who wanted to give nature walks, but he says the park aide always implied it was his friend Lawrence Forti who wanted to provide the tours, not Featherstone. "It was never that John wanted the paperwork," says Bell, adding that he tried to discourage the private walks because the county was planning to hire a new manager who would reinstate the paid tours. A hiring freeze had delayed the replacement of Patricia Cunningham, Bell explains, which also meant Featherstone and Wes Wilson worked at the park for nearly ten months without an on-site supervisor.

Featherstone says that regardless of the outcome of his trial, he's not finished with the Arch Creek Trust or his ex-employer, Dade County. He vows to oppose the organization's land-acquisition endeavors through allies such as Mary Ward, and says he has an attorney, whom he refuses to name, who will file a lawsuit against the county. Featherstone won't discuss the litigation in any detail, but he does say the county harmed him by saying he was a poor employee when prospective employers called for a reference. Some of those queries went to John Aligood, chief of human resources for Dade County Parks, who says he informed callers that Featherstone had abandoned his post and that the county would not rehire him. That information is part of the former park aide's personnel file, which is open to the public.

As for his experiences with the park and its overseers, and the impression he may have made on his former colleagues in the trust, Featherstone refuses to apologize for his stubborn nature. "I'm very comfortable with myself, so I don't care if I fit in or not with the Arch Creek Trust or with anything," he says. I'm convinced that when we die, we watch our lives like a movie and we judge ourselves. There are movies you see that you wish you didn't see - it was a waste of time. There are movies that are tear-jerkers. Mine probably will be a strange combination of a comedy with a few tear-jerking moments in there, and question marks.


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