Protectors of the Planet
"I'm a hands-on biologist," says John Morrill, professor emeritus of environmental biology at New College. "If you want to study science, you've got to do science." Beginning with his first class in 1967, Morrill took his students into the outdoor laboratory of Sarasota Bay.
Funding was tight; and Morrill had little patience for wringing cash from state bureaucracies. So he began selling his expertise to waterfront developers wending their way through environmental regulations, directing them to pay his fees to the New College Foundation's biology research fund. Over the next 34 years, half a million dollars funded the program that way. "It's not generosity," Morrill insists. "It provided me entrée to a number of habitats in private lands that would never have been accessible otherwise."
Now 75, the researcher has helped shape public policy on everything from barrier islands and Midnight Pass to development of Longboat Key. When activists seeking to preserve Englewood's Lemon Bay came calling, "I provided them with 50 pounds of information," says Morrill. "I know where information can be obtained."
Though he hasn't darkened a classroom for two years, books and papers are stacked in his Bay Shore Road home, and he still works with students on research projects. "To read about science is one thing," he says. "The trick is to bring people along so they finally say, 'I want to do this for my sake.'"
As Sarasota County's manager of sustainability, Jodi John is passionate about her mission: to ensure that county purchases are the least toxic, most recycled, renewable, and water and energy efficient possible. It's a good fit for Johns, who loved her grandmother's old Cracker house so much that she bought it, and restored it, reusing loads of the original lumber. When the metal roof revealed wooden shaker tiles patched with license plates from 1932, she kept them all.
"She eats, sleeps, drinks, walks and talks sustainability," says County Commissioner Shannon Staub. Back in 1976, John was talking waste management and pulling together Sarasota's first recycling plan. When sustainability became code in 2002, officials tapped her to implement it. Although some worried that the new policy would be expensive and labor-intensive, John's encyclopedic knowledge, soft voice and quiet demeanor helped convince opponents of the future savings in health and welfare.
In just two years, John has formed partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency to incorporate state-of-the-art energy systems in county buildings, and with Mote Marine to promote sustainably harvested seafood at local restaurants and grocers. And she's planning a community "efest" at the Van Wezel in May, which will feature green businesses, kids' activities, organic foods and more. "I'm driven by wanting to leave the world a better place," says John. "I want my nephews to have a healthy, beautiful environment."
Brian Pruett says it's easy to make a small house energy efficient. It's harder in the 5,000-square-foot luxury homes Pruett Builders has been constructing since 1983. Yet Pruett's homes are 50 percent more energy efficient than current standards require. They're also healthier, employing filtration systems that eliminate harmful bacteria and chemicals.
"I consider myself an environmentalist," says the St. Petersburg native. "Places I used to camp and play are covered with buildings today, so we try to save any tree we can." He selects materials based on their longevity, driving his home costs up 2 to 3 percent. But if you can get a 15- to 20-percent return through the prolonged life of products and lower water and utility bills, he argues, "It pays you to be super energy efficient."
The National Association of Home Buyers has given the company its highest award for energy efficiency for four consecutive years; and the firm is the only Sarasota member of the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Industrialized Housing Partnership, which seeks to reduce housing energy costs by up to 50 percent.
"Most builders look at [green building] from a calculator's point of view, and clients just aren't asking for it yet," Pruett says. "But in another five to seven years, people will demand it. If you don't become part of it, you're going to be left behind."
A photographer since 1961, Clyde Butcher made a good living photographing architectural models and department store décor. But the loss of his 17-year-old son to a drunk driver in 1986 changed everything. "I suddenly felt there was something more important than making money," he says. And although he'd always worked in color, he'd lost his interest in lush palettes. Butcher disappeared into Florida's swamps and returned with haunting black-and-white images. Printed in sizes five feet and larger, they introduced people from all over to the wild beauty of Florida's rare ecosystems, and ignited new passion in the artist.
Today he and his wife, Niki, have homes in Venice, where his studio and darkroom are located, and on 13 acres of wild Everglades in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where he leads swamp walks through the surrounding wetlands and cypress stands. The subject of award-winning documentaries, Butcher has donated works to the state's "Save Our Rivers" program, South Florida Water Management District, Bureau of Submerged Lands and Preserves, Audubon Society and Everglades National Park. ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings once chose him as a "Person of the Week."
But Butcher claims, "Being a photographer and an artist has never been important to me. I call myself more an educator about the earth. People don't realize it's a spaceship and there's just so much material here."
Albert Joerger, the 37-year-old founder and president of the Sarasota Conservation Foundation, talks about necklaces. Emerald necklaces. "There are 412 vacant acres of ground on Sarasota's waterfront," he explains. "If we create an emerald necklace of protected open space and conservation easements that protects our bays, beaches and barrier islands, we can define the character and ecology of Sarasota County for decades to come."
In 2003, Joerger assembled a board of well-known locals (among them, environmentally minded County Commissioner Jon Thaxton) and won a $500,000 grant that enabled the foundation to get up and running. In its first year, the non-profit has already protected its first piece of waterfront property-the Venice Island Gateway Park. "Thanks to a substantial grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, we secured permanent public access to the Intracoastal Waterway and increased open space for future generations," he says.
The former assistant state director of the Skylands program with the Nature Conservancy in New Jersey, Joerger says property owners can gain tax advantages from working with the foundation. And ultimately, he says, businesses as well as residents benefit from saving our waterfront land: "Anyone can build from one end of a landscape to another, but landscapes that have a unique character will be where people want to live and visit." With an upcoming membership drive, he hopes to enlist supporters who share the foundation's vision.
A public defender for Manatee County, 50-year-old Peter Belmont also practices environmental law. And he doesn't mince words explaining why he fights for the Florida environment: "Look around," he says. "A lot of it is going away."
The former Legal Chair and Wetlands Chair for the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club for 15 years, Belmont volunteers his time to battle environmental causes for a host of groups and civic associations. He also lobbies agencies to improve the rules that guide development and growth. He's especially proud of several cases that challenged the phosphate industry. "It's invigorating to take on a huge industry-and win," he says.
The National Sierra Club awarded Belmont its highest award for litigators, the Special Service Award. "Peter walks the walk," says the group's Frank Jackalone. "He drives a hybrid car and bicycles whenever he gets the chance."
"We have to decide what our community should look like in the future-and stick by it," Belmont says. "The problem is we don't. When someone wants the rules changed, the rules get changed. This seems to be the general mentality throughout Florida." Anyone can join the battle, he urges: "Write letters to editors, contact your local representatives, go to meetings and public hearings, and support groups working to protect the environment."