Can the Florida Everglades become a political weapon? The Everglades Foundation, a non-profit that is banned from campaigning, hopes to find out this week as it launches a 12-day bus tour to drum up public support for its No. 1 priority: the purchase of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to be used for water cleansing marshes.
With a shrink-wrapped bus emblazoned with the words NoworNeverglades, the organization is hoping to seize on the public's election-year focus and crisscross the state to win support for the post-election policy -- Everglades restoration, said Eric Eikenberg, director of the Everglades Foundation.
"It's that season and everybody is focused on the election,'' he said. "People are tired of toxic algae in the water and we are calling attention to the role clean water, and our water supply has on economics and tourism."
The foundation is urging people to sign the #NoworNeverglades Declaration in which people "affirm their support for added water storage in the [Everglades Agricultural Area] to help alleviate damaging discharges into coastal estuaries, increase the flow of clean fresh water to the Everglades and Florida Bay, and protect the drinking water supply for 6 million Floridians."
The bus will begin its tour Wednesday at Gramps Restaurant in Miami's Wynwood district and the make its way north, through South and Central Florida. Events include stops at the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Zoo Miami, the Naples Zoo, Bass Pro Shops the Audubon Assembly Conference and even the Halloween on the Mile event in Coral Gables.
The bus will be stopping at football games along the way -- from the University of South Florida's match with Navy on Friday to the Miami Dolphins v. Jets game on Nov. 6. The foundation will be collecting the names and social media contacts of its supporters as it prepares to enlist legislative support for the land buy in the March legislative session, Eikenberg said.
"We want an army of people to weigh in on buying the land when the Legislature starts and decides whether to get the money in the budget,'' he said. "Everybody wants to protect the Everglades. The question is, how are they actually going to do it?"
Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as said he is going to make buying the land, using money already available through environmental preservation funds, a top priority.
The sugar industry, however, has vigorously opposed the land buy as unnecessary and considers it an attempt to undercut the future of the industry in Florida.
“Surely there are better ways to advocate for the environment than driving a fossil fuel-powered luxury bus 12 days across South Florida while spreading half-truths about how our water system operates and how to manage Lake Okeechobee discharges,'' said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar spokesperson.
"These activists would be better off meeting with the farmers in the EAA that have worked to reduce phosphorus by an average 55 percent over the last two decades and see the hard-working people of the Glades they are trying to ignore. They should also stop to consult with the water quality experts and scientists at the South Florida Water Management District, Department of Environmental Protection, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who have thoroughly discredited the ‘buy the land, send the water south’ bumper sticker science.”