America's sugar lobby is one of the fiercest and most powerful on Capitol Hill. Everglades National Park is one of America's greatest treasures. Our heavily subsidized sugar industry—a program that costs taxpayers roughly $3.5 billion annually—offers nothing sweet to consumers, taxpayers, or Florida's waterways. The Florida Everglades represent perhaps one of the greatest casualties of a small, yet powerful special interest group.
For nearly 40 years, Sandy Moret, recipient of the 2018 Fly Fisherman Conservationist of the Year Award, has fought Florida's water management policies, which historically focused on satisfying the demands of the sugar cane industry to the detriment of the Everglades.
Moret, age 71, hails from a family of Atlanta liquor distributors. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he worked in brokerage in Atlanta for a few years and served as an officer in the National Guard.
In 1972, his brother coaxed him to Miami to open a branch of Pat's Brewing. The branch held an account with the Atlanta airport and planned to take over Miami's international air hub. Moret connected with Flip Pallot at a Fourth of July party, and at their kids' swimming lessons at a neighborhood pool. Flip took Moret to Flamingo Key, where his passion for saltwater angling was ignited.
"We caught 25-pound cobia. We chased bonefish and tarpon around the Everglades and eventually, I started fishing in tournaments with Steve Huff," Moret recalled. He won't tell you himself, but his angling career kind of exploded from there. Eight times Moret has been champion of the Keys' most prestigious fly-fishing tournaments: the Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament and the Islamorada Invitational Bonefish Fly Championship. He was often a guest angler on Pallot's television series Walker's Cay Chronicles as well as The Reel Guys and Andy Mill's Sportsman's Adventures.
In 1985 Moret moved to Islamorada. Soon after, he founded the Florida Keys Fly Fishing School and then in 1992, Florida Keys Outfitters fly shop. Both businesses have become Keys classics, still operated by Sandy and his wife Sue.
"Over the years, I saw the shortcomings of Florida water management and what was happening to the Everglades," Moret said. "To understand the problem, you have to really understand how the Everglades work."
At one time, the Everglades stretched from present-day Orlando to the Florida Keys, with the entire watershed flowing from north to south. Water from the Kissimmee River moved southward to Lake Okeechobee. Some water also flowed east and west through the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. During the rainy season, Okeechobee overflowed, replenishing the Everglades and forming a slow-moving grass river flowing to Florida Bay. During dry seasons, the flow dropped and the Everglades dried seasonally, a unique and critical ecosystem feature. The ebb and flow of water followed natural precipitation cycles.
Everglades National Park provides critical habitat for rare and endangered species like manatees, American crocodiles, and Florida panthers. The 1.5 million acres of wetland is designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance. Annually, the park attracts 1.1 million visitors generating $104.5 million revenue for the state. A 2009 report by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust estimated the total annual economic output of the Everglades recreational freshwater fishery to be $352.5 million and saltwater, $883.6 million.
In spite of these glowing numbers, history has caught up with the Everglades. South Florida's watershed was severely altered in the early 20th Century.
The Herbert Hoover Dike was constructed as a small earthen dam on Lake Okeechobee to control flooding, and over the years, was built into a serious flood control system to allow the development and expansion of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sends nutrient-heavy water from these agricultural lands into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers on the west and east coasts, using these waterways as a sewage system for agricultural runoff. As a result, the waterways suffer from vicious blue-green algae blooms (cyanobacteria) that are lethal to humans, wildlife, and the environment.
Water management in South Florida isn't working for Lake Okeechobee. The solution seems simple—restore the health of the lake, especially the flow to the south, into the Everglades Agricultural Area. Many people have tried countless times to make this happen, among them, Sandy Moret.
"The thing about Sandy Moret, aside from his legendary angling status, teaching skills, and business acumen," said Capt. Steve Friedman, president of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, "is that he cares about the environment, as we all do. But since he's been fishing Florida's waters since the 70s, he's attended meeting after meeting regarding the environment, water quality, and fishing regulations to ensure there are fish in the future. And now, today, those same meetings are held and he is still going because he cares and because he hasn't seen change."
In the late 70s, Moret and other anglers knew that the Everglades were saltier than seawater in some places. They also knew the fishery wouldn't be viable for long if commercial harvest continued. In 1981, Moret and others formed the Everglades Protection Association to address these concerns, and Moret was the first president. Their efforts resulted in the end of commercial harvest and gillnetting within Everglades National Park.
The issue of water management, however, remained. More groups formed over the years, such as the Everglades Foundation in 2000. Everyone made dents here and there, but could never restore flows to the south. Moret partook in countless efforts, always standing at the forefront of these initiatives.
In 2014, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) was approved as a constitutional amendment, with 75% of voters supporting it. The measure dedicated 33% of net revenue from the state excise tax on documents to the state's Land Acquisition Trust Fund. This fund was created to buy and improve conservation easements for a variety of recreational and environmental reasons, among them, purchasing and restoring lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Everglades Protection Area.
The political will was there. The legislation was there. The money was there. Now, the land just needed to be purchased. But it wasn't purchased. Everyone quickly realized that Amendment 1 wasn't working. When Moret attended a district meeting in October 2015, it was dÃ©jÃ vu.
"I thought, 'I went to this meeting 30 years ago. This is the same shit, same excuses, but with better graphics.' There is one solution to all of this: implementation," Moret said. "It's a simple problem with a singular solution: Buy the land and get water in Florida Bay."
The bill simply had to be implemented. There was one small road-block, the same one that had been there all along: Florida's sugar lobby.
Under the aegis of the United States Department of Agriculture, the current sugar program restricts domestic production, and has concentrated production into the hands of a few powerful families who control the sugar industry.
Alongside domestic restriction, a stringent cap is placed on imported sugar. As a result, American consumers pay prices far higher—almost twice as much—than those of the global market. This subsidy has largely gone unnoticed because it assumes the form of higher consumer prices rather than direct subsidy payments, but in effect it is corporate welfare. In addition to artificially high prices, the sugar industry doesn't have to pay to clean up the environment they are contaminating.
Today, the sugar industry—controlled and owned mostly by two powerful families—grips many Florida Congress members by the neck, and according to bullsugar.org, "Big Sugar is left with upwards of $65 million in direct, artificial windfall profits to be spent annually on buying politicians, lobbyists, and major influence within the media."
These companies block solutions to South Florida's water woes outlined in Amendment 1. They artificially inflate the price of land around Lake Okeechobee essential to restoring the Everglades, making it impossible to purchase critical habitat.
"I'm not a political guy, but this is political," said Moret. "Our campaign contribution system is behind this environmental problem. In Florida, we manage water like they do in Bangladesh."
In 2015, Moret gathered together a network or organizations to form a powerful coalition: Now or Neverglades. The coalition is made up of founding partners Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, bullsugar.org, Captains for Clean Water, Everglades Foundation, Everglades Trust, Florida Bay Forever, Herman Lucerne Memorial, and The International Game Fish Association. Since its formation, more than 132 other nonprofits and businesses have contributed to the cause, along with more than 60,500 signatories declaring:
"I support the 200-plus Everglades scientists who believe that increased storage, treatment, and conveyance of water south of Lake Okeechobee is essential to stop the damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries; to restore the flow of clean, fresh water to Everglades National Park, Florida Bay, and the Florida Keys; to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee; and to protect the drinking water for 8 million Floridians living in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties."
This declaration created statewide awareness and urgency as few other efforts. It caught the attention of Florida Senate President Joe Negron, who in 2017 introduced Senate Bill 10—legislation mandating construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store, clean, and carry fresh water to the south. On the heels of that, U.S. Representative Brian Mast created legislation to expedite the steps outlined in the bill. In May 2017, Governor Rick Scott signed SB10 into law. SB10 is the only example in Florida's political history in which the sugar lobby lost.
Chris Maroney, a cofounder of bullsugar.org says that the legislation succeeded because, "Everybody trusted and respected Moret. He was the natural leader of this coalition. It took a great deal of political courage for Senator Negron to take action. His courage came from the political will of Moret and the coalition."
"The legislation is passed, but it's up to stakeholders to keep the momentum going and ensure the legislation is effectively enacted. We need to build on that and maintain the political will. What happens in this next year is critical," said Maroney.
"Moret decided to do something different," said Friedman. "He realized the only way to make change is to change the politicians who have been ignoring our pleas for decades. Get the lawmakers in who agree to their constituents' needs instead of their fundraisers' or small interest demands. Moret has simply said 'enough.' We cannot wait any longer. Our message was clear: If you don't vote for clean water, Everglades restoration, you will not be elected. Now is the time."
Moret's effort to unite the fishing and outdoors industries, conservation groups, politicians, and tens of thousands of Floridians is truly astounding. Without drastic action, the Everglades may only have 20 years remaining. What he and the Now or Neverglades coalition face is the stuff that tales of David and Goliath are made of. But they've faced it and they'll continue to face it until they see restoration in America's crown jewel wetland and seagrass meadow.
"You have to do something," said Moret. "I'm 71 years old. I'll never see the water flow in my lifetime. But my kids and my grandkids should have it. It's not right to take it away from them so two billionaires can manipulate the water, make people sick, and destroy the fishing, boating, and tourism industries for profit. At 20 million people, we're letting 1,000 people dictate the quality of our lives. It's gotta stop."
Sandy Moret was nominated for the 2018 Fly Fisherman Conservationist of the Year Award by Harold Brewer, chairman of the board of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT). Sage will donate $5,000 to BTT in Moret's name to support the efforts of the Now or Neverglades coalition to restore healthy flows to the Everglades. Moret will receive the award at BTT's annual Islamorada Dinner, Jan. 19, 2018 at the Islander Resort. To sign the declaration, visit gladesdeclaration.org. Our common goal is to reach 100,000 signatures in 2018.
Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.