Water Warriors

During the annual ForEverglades Benefit in February, author Carl Hiaasen took the podium and did what came naturally: He told a story.

The Everglades - ForEverglades Benefit, Everglades Foundaiton - Michael Keaton and Cark Hiaasen

   “August of last year, I get this call from Michael saying, ‘We’ve got to go fishing,’” Hiaasen said in reference to his fishing buddy, actor Michael Keaton. “So we’re in Montana on this beautiful wild river, and he says, ‘I’ll show you this great spot.’ So he tells me to fish along this shoreline and gives me the fly to use and says, ‘I’ll be back for you in a few minutes.’ That was the last time I saw him until yesterday.”

Michael Keaton - Everglades Advocacy Award - Everglades Foundation

Everglades Advicacy Awardee, Michael Keaton.

Photo by Carrie Bradburn

   Laughter broke out, and Hiaasen added, “When I heard he was the guest of honor tonight, I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s going to show up.’”
   Keaton, who has starred in Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, Batman, Batman Returns and this year’s remake of RoboCop, among others, not only showed up, he also received the Everglades Advocacy Award for promoting conservation of American water systems, including Florida’s most important watershed. As Hiaasen put it, Keaton is “a passionate conservationist. He’s happiest when he’s outdoors.”
   Most fishermen are. Keaton, who has been known to drop everything when the fishing’s good, is a supporter of conservation ventures from coast to coast, including the nonprofit American Rivers and a variety of clean-ocean projects. When he first fished in South Florida, he had a revelation about the Everglades. “It’s one of the great places on Earth, really,” he says. “I had overlooked it until I started fishing in these parts. That’s when I got it.”

Egret Stalking Prey in the Everglades

   The common thread in all his conservation efforts is water. “It’s impossible to go out and do what we do,” he says, gesturing toward Hiaasen, “and not be immersed in the environment. Whether you are wading a flat, fishing on a river or standing on a boat, you have no choice but to care. And from that microcosm, it expands exponentially.”
   Keaton, who lives in Los Angeles, has seen the impact of lacking water policies firsthand. “The water situation out there is dire,” he says. “The state is in the worst drought in 500 years. Officials said they didn’t have enough water to supplement the needs of 25 million people.” He pauses to let the message sink in. “Twenty-five million people without sufficient water. In America.”
The same thing could happen in Florida, he says. “In fact, in 2010 it almost did. West Palm Beach was about three weeks away from the same situation.”

A baby alligator lurks in the Everglades

   The solution? “We need smart water policies,” he says.
   The Everglades Foundation, the cause he came to Palm Beach to support, has its own answer. For 20 years, the organization has been working to improve and protect the water quality that 7 million Floridians depend on. Over several generations, the Everglades, a World Heritage Site and the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America, has been damaged by human intervention. The foundation seeks to reverse that damage and restore the historic water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the southern Everglades.

author Carl Hiaasen, water warrior

Author and Everglades conservationalist, Carl Hiaasen.

Photo by Carrie Bradburn

   Hiaasen, who is active with the foundation, is equally evangelical about the protection of the so-called River of Grass. He even works the Everglades, and the issues surrounding it, into his novels, including Skinny Dip and the young-adult title Chomp. “If you’re lucky enough to do well in your profession, there’s a responsibility to make people think about the important things,” he says. “I grew up down here, and it’s personal for me. At some point, you have to dig in your heels and say, ‘We have a moral responsibility not to wreck this place.’”
   Hiaasen, whom Keaton calls “the real deal” among Floridians, anglers and conservationists, says the issue goes beyond protection of nature and wildlife habitats. “It’s also about quality of water,” he says. “About how clean the water is and how clean it will be for our kids and grandkids. The Everglades is an iconic symbol for that battle.”
   Keaton adds, “Water conservation seems trendy; it seems the thing to do. The truth is, there is no choice. It’s simple: Not taking care of these places is rude. It’s impolite to God. You wouldn’t be disrespectful in someone’s house. Why is this any different?”

Carl Hiassen with a bone fish

   Everglades Foundation officials and scientists have argued for two decades that it’s about as important a fight as any. And that fight is “a long way from being finished,” Hiaasen says. “We have to stay strong, and we have to stay pissed off and dedicated. We have to stay in it for our kids and grandkids to see a piece of this paradise.”

Cypress Strand in the River of Grass - The Everglades

Everglades Fact Check:

  • America’s Everglades, once spanning 8 million acres, has diminished drastically in size; some 2 million acres have been lost.
  • The Everglades is not a swamp, but rather a slow-moving river.
  • The system provides provides drinking water for 7 million (1 out of 3) Floridians.
  • The ecosystem buffers sea-level rise by providing necessary water storage for coastal communities.
  • The region is home to 67 threatened or endangered species, including “indicator” species like the Florida panther and the American crocodile.

Source: The Everglades Foundation

Turtle sunning itself in the Everglades

Everglades Photography by Jessica Hodder

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