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.’
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Like her husband, Mary Barley is very data-driven and believes in fighting falsehoods with facts, and the foundation is a go-to organization for Everglades research and funding. In 2007 it disbursed $1.3 million to groups such as the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund.Skip to next paragraph
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Barley also is close to state leaders. When Mr. Crist announced the sugar deal in June, it was news to almost everyone except Barley and the foundation, which had been involved in the talks for months. She knows how to play politics and is president of the foundation’s sister organization, the Everglades Trust, which handles lobbying in Washington and Tallahassee.
With a net worth of more than $2.4 million, Barley estimates she will give perhaps “tens of thousands” this election year alone on behalf of Everglades advocacy. To her, it is fighting money with money, the best and most direct way to counter the well-funded agriculture and development industries, all of which vie for the precious water of the “river of grass.”
The 5 foot, 1 inch Barley grew up in tiny Oconto, Wis., one of five children. Her dad split when she was young, and her mother raised the family with government assistance. Barley went to work when she was 7 picking beans. Today she lives with a housekeeper, two dogs and two parrots in a 2,000-square-foot waterfront home in Islamorada. Her guesthouse is 1,000 square feet. She has traveled the world.
Her campaign is about saving the Everglades but also about holding government accountable. She and her husband liked to fish together, and in the beginning their cause was the environment. Over time they became infuriated by what they saw as government corruption allowing agriculture and the development industry to rule at the expense of the ecosystem.
“It’s so hard as an American to take off your rose-colored glasses and really see it as it really is,” Barley says. “The government is run by special interests and big contributions, and the bigger contributions you give, the more likely you are to get what you need, or what you want.”
Not surprisingly, Barley’s foes – of whom there are a significant number – see things differently. Some rural farmers and sugar industry officials consider her views too overwrought and her tactics too uncompromising.
“About the best thing I could probably say about her is she’s a worthy foe,” says Rick Roth, a member of the board of directors of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, who operates a family-owned farm in Belle Glade. He believes new technology has made sugar among the cleanest crops to grow. “Farmers have evolved and become more environmentally sensitive. They’ve become a lot more in tune with it as the whole nation has.”
What set the Barleys apart, at least in the beginning, was their willingness to look beyond their backyard to the Everglades as a whole, says Van Lent, who has studied the region for 25 years. A resident of Key Largo, he describes the couple as heroes for Florida Keys residents, people who finally stood up for the small fishing towns here.
“Before this everybody sort of had this little patch, and they would fight for that over every other patch,” he says. “Mary and George were the first to say the whole thing is broken, and they had the science to back it up.”
For Mary Barley, the Everglades is a full-time job. She has nothing to gain from her advocacy – except better fishing in Florida Bay – and lives off her investments. She is motivated by a sense of responsibility to the region, her husband, and the state of Florida, which she feels has given her so much.
During downtime in the Everglades, usually spent fishing, she soaks in the solitude and the open water surrounding her.
“Sometimes I think in profound ways about why it is so hard to get people to want to help, and why don’t they understand,” she says. “If we can save this place, we probably can save any place. It’s just our political will.”