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Bob Graham leaves behind a great impact on the Florida environment and wildlife

Black/white photo of Bob Graham standing in front of several microphones with a crowd behind him
Gov.-elect Bob Graham talks to members of the press, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 1978 poolside at his Miami hotel after his Tuesday night victory over opponent Jack Eckerd. Graham, who chaired the Intelligence Committee following the 2001 terrorist attacks and opposed the Iraq invasion, has died, according to an announcement by his family Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

In this episode, we’re talking about Bob Graham’s environmental legacy - including his efforts to protect wild places like the Everglades and other waterways - and wildlife, like the manatee.

Bob Graham knew how to rally people to a cause, no matter their political affiliation.

He died this month at the age of 87. The Democrat from South Florida had a profound influence on state politics during his two terms as governor, and later as a U.S. senator.

As governor, Bob Graham helped usher in the Save Our Rivers program, the Wetlands Protection Act, the Growth Management Act, and the Save Our Everglades program.

He kept advocating for the environment long after leaving office. In 2016, he told Central Florida Public Media the state needed to do a better job of protecting its water.

“There’s only so much of it, and our economy and population are growing so rapidly it won’t be long before we are in a real period of shortage unless we make better judgments in the future than we made in 2016,” Graham said.

To learn more about how Graham built his legacy of environmental stewardship, Florida Matters spoke with two people who worked closely with him on the environment while he was governor.

Jake Varn served as the secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation from 1979 to 1981. Victoria Tschinkel was Varn’s deputy and took over the department when Varn became secretary of transportation. Both of them are board members of the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida.

Varn and Tschinkel first met Graham in 1979 at the governor’s mansion when they were interviewed for the secretary of the department of environmental regulation position.

“When I got there, I learned that I was there for an interview with the governor,” Varn said. “Quite frankly, to this day, I don’t know how I got on the list, because I think most people filled out an application.”

Varn would get the job with Tschinkel becoming his “number two.” She believes one of Graham’s biggest priorities was trying to build a better relationship with the five water management districts.

However, in 1981, Sports Illustrated released an article criticizing Graham on his environmental record.

“It was incredibly upsetting to everybody in the administration. There were a lot of untruths in it,” Tschinkel said. The article came out during her leadership in the Department of Environmental Regulation. “I think at the point, since we were starting to move forward on quite a few issues, I think the governor got very upset.”

In 1985, Graham signed the Growth Management Act, requiring counties to develop local comprehensive plans consistent with state plans for managing a growing Florida.

“The Growth Management Act was desperately needed in Florida because land, which continues to happen in many places, was being built on that was sure to flood, sure to be destroyed by hurricanes, sure to cover up necessary agricultural land, sure to demand water for growing grass, water that simply was not available,” said Tschinkel.

Varn said Florida is falling short of Graham’s vision for balancing growth and conservation.

In 2016, he noted, the state identified 30 outstanding springs that needed protection.

“Today, 24 out of those 30 springs have water quality problems. I mean, in the end, they haven't even adopted a rule. And you're talking about having to spend significant money to solve these water quality problems,” said Varn.

Tschinkel said Graham’s understanding of government and his knack for connecting with people meant he was able to get things done to protect Florida’s wild lands and waterways.

“The point I think I would like to leave people with the most was Graham was a visionary. He rallied people around causes they could understand, at a time when it became obvious that something had to be done,” she said.

“I think what it requires is this energy, vision, enthusiasm, all of which Bob Graham had, and he knew how to make the government work and get it done. [A] very unique politician that way.”

Varn added that he voted for Graham’s opponent during his first gubernatorial election.

“I didn’t even vote for Bob Graham and here, he appointed me and I had just an absolute wonderful relationship with him. And you know, he kind of has set for me what I think a governor ought to be.”

Bob Graham speaking at a podium with several microphones
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., gestures as he answers questions regarding the ongoing security hearing on Capitol Hill, June 18, 2002, in Washington. Graham, who chaired the Intelligence Committee following the 2001 terrorist attacks and opposed the Iraq invasion, has died, according to an announcement by his family Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

Saving the manatees

“If I was going to do an analogy, I came up with the tugboat species, because they're kind of slow and big and powerful, and they sort of drag or push the protections along with them,” said Pat Rose, aquatic biologist and the executive director of the Save the Manatees Club.

While the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act was signed in 1978, the year Graham took office as governor, the club was founded in 1981 through a unique collaboration between Graham and singer Jimmy Buffett.

The pair met backstage at one of Buffett’s shows.

“They introduced him to Jimmy and they got talking and Jimmy mentioned to the governor that he was concerned about manatee protection.”

From there, Graham created the “Save the Manatees Committee” and Buffett was appointed chairman. At this point, Rose was the federal manatee recovery activities coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was then selected to be the first scientific advisor of the committee.

“Manatees were really that peaceful, really gentle species, even as large and powerful as they were as a marine mammal,” said Rose. “It really represented something that if you could save them, then you could help save those aquatic ecosystems.”

Manatees would graze then move to another area. The feeding area they left behind would eventually grow, creating new ecosystems for more fish to survive in. Rose says human intervention is what has caused all the problems for manatees.

“As Florida began to develop dredging and filling and impacting both seagrasses and other aspects of the habitat and water quality, it was obvious that if that didn't change, and we didn't do a better job of protecting Florida itself, that species like the manatee were going to be in further trouble.”

Rose says if manatees die, it’s because the state isn’t doing what it needs to to protect our aquatic systems. And he knows Graham and Buffett believed the same thing. He says their unique coupling is what helped give life to the manatee club. Like with everything he did, Graham had a vision and the right group of people to see it through.

“If you look at almost any issue, growth management, it's all better off,” Rose said. “It's not where it needs to be, but I hate to even think about where we would be if it weren't for the service that Bob Graham gave to Florida in so many different ways.

As the executive producer of WUSF's Florida Matters, I aim to create a show and podcast that makes all Floridians feel seen and heard. That's also my assignment as a producer for The Florida Roundup. In any role, my goal is always to amplify the voices often overlooked.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.