Mary Barley crusades behind the scenes for the Everglades
The wealthy widow uses her money and connections to become one of Florida’s most potent protectors of the ‘river of grass.’
Everglades National Park, Fla.
Mary Barley pauses and points into the brush. There, perched near the water, is a green heron. She reaches for her camera. On the boardwalk nearby, tourists swat mosquitoes. A small alligator floats in the distance. Somewhere pumps deliver the water that makes this entire scene possible.Skip to next paragraph
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It is a warm, bright morning here in the Royal Palm area of Everglades National Park, the first area of the Everglades to be preserved as a state park in 1916. Here North America meets the tropics, breeding a biodiversity unlike that of any place else on Earth. And the most valued resource is water. Water fuels the region.
Ms. Barley and I are here with Tom Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation, a conservation group. Barley, the foundation’s vice chairwoman, is on one of her many fact-finding trips into the Everglades. She peppers Mr. Van Lent with questions as if she’s cross-examining a witness – about water flows, about man-made water “gates,” about the minute mechanics of one of the world’s most unusual pieces of outdoor plumbing. She wants to do more than preserve the Everglades with a photograph.
For more than a decade, Barley has waged a campaign to save the Everglades, one unprecedented for engaging all the region’s power players (some of them grudgingly, to be sure) to work for real change across a collapsing ecosystem. A self-described “environmental rabblerouser,” Barley is a millionaire widow who took up her husband’s cause after his death in a 1995 plane crash that occurred as he was on his way to meet with the US Army Corps of Engineers about the Everglades.
The next year Barley faced off with the region’s potent sugar industry herself, helping win a state constitutional amendment requiring polluters to bear the brunt of cleanup costs. In 2000, she was there when President Clinton committed to an $8 billion restoration effort. Two years later, frustrated by the candidates for commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, she ran herself, but lost.
And she was there again this June when Gov. Charlie Crist announced the state would buy US Sugar in a bold $1.75 billion plan to restore a more natural water flow in the region. Environmentalists hailed the deal as historic. Barley, as usual, was at the center of it.
At first Barley suspected foul play in her husband’s death. The crash killed both him and his pilot. An investigation concluded pilot error and a faulty plane part were to blame, but Barley was spooked by warnings from well-placed friends who said her husband’s political foes were capable of such a crime. She hired attorneys who conducted their own investigation, but turning up nothing.
“Could they have? Yes. But I think it’s highly unlikely,” Barley says today. We are talking in her home office in the Florida Keys. Outside, her fishing boat floats in Barley Basin. Just beyond is Florida Bay and Everglades National Park.
Barley is not your typical environmentalist. As soon as we sit down to talk, she hands me a disposable plastic bottle of water. “Would I go and sit on top of a tree?” she asks. “Probably not because I know I could be more effective doing other things.” Instead she wields influence through her wealth and well-placed friends. Her manner is direct, no-nonsense, and relentless.
In 1993 her husband, a wealthy real estate developer, established the Everglades Foundation with his friend Paul Tudor Jones, a Wall Street investor. They were motivated by the deterioration of Florida Bay, one of their favorite fishing spots, and felt they could make a difference with their money and connections.