Interviewee: Dr. Ronnie Zoe Hawkins
Interviewer: Clarence Walter Thomas
Date: April 2, 1989
T: This is Clarence Walter Thomas for the University of Florida Oral History
Program. Today is Sunday, April 2, 1989, and I will be interviewing Dr. Ronnie
Zoe Hawkins, [a medical doctor who is also] a doctoral student at the University
of Florida, Department of Philosophy, specializing in environmental ethics. Dr.
Hawkins is also an environmental activist. Dr. Hawkins was born in California
but was reared in St. Petersburg, Florida. She now resides in Alachua County.
The interview is being conducted at the philosophy department's conference
room located in Dauer Hall on the campus of the University of Florida. Ronnie, I
would like to begin by having you tell us what you think the important issues or
the important components are of growth vs. no-growth.
H: I think the concept of growth, first of all, is something people need to think a lot
more about than they have up to this point. It gets thrown around as a slogan.
"Oh, we want growth. How can you possibly be against growth?" But you have
to look at the word growth and ask what is it that is growing.
I remember being at a conference about this a couple of years ago, and they
started off by posing the question, "What is growth?" The first answer they got
from the audience was, "It is getting larger. Something is getting bigger." But
when you apply growth to Alachua County or the state of Florida, the state of
Florida obviously is not getting bigger. We have a finite land area, so we are not
getting bigger. Alachua County is not getting bigger. There are different types
of growth. If you are talking about population growth, you are talking about a
higher density of human beings per unit area of land.
It seems to me that it is very important for us to try to separate out the two
concepts of population growth and economic growth, but very few people and
very few politicians seem to want to do that. I think it is very important that we
do. I do not feel like I can speak as an expert about how to do that, but I think
we have certainly gotten to the point in the county, in the state, and globally
where we are going to have to recognize the fact that increased human
population growth per se is not going to be a good thing. How that separates
out from improving the standards of living for individual human beings is
something I am interested in. I want to look into that further, but I have to begin
looking into it by realizing that these are things that need to be teased apart and
T: What is your stand on the growth vs. no-growth issue?
H: As far as locally, statewide, and globally, my personal stand is that it is time to
turn around most of the trends we see. Personally, I would like to see fewer
people in my immediate environment. I would like to see fewer people globally.
I am not talking about some sort of extermination, but I am talking about over the
long haul. We have to realize that it is important for things to level off and reach
some sort of sustainable balance. In the long run, it might be better if the
population were smaller than it is. That is something that could be attained over
a number of generations, and I think it is important that at least a few people
have the guts to say that might be a reasonable goal.
T: In terms of economic growth, what would your stand be?
H: Economic growth. I do not even like these terms because they seem so vague.
I am all for improving the standard of living for everybody. In the ideal sense, I
would like to see people in Third World countries having a very good standard of
living and a high level of education. All these things are very important. People
who are living in this country, in this state, and in this county ought to be
considered part of the democratic process that is going on and ought to be living
well, however you want to define that. But if you are talking about numbers of
people and about those people dividing up some sort of economic pie of goods
or whatever it is that fulfills their needs, the more people you have to divide
things up among, the less individuals are going to have, in most cases. Maybe
that is not true with something like education or higher values, but it is certainly
true of material things. It is certainly true of land. I think as we get farther from
our biological base and we get into these abstract concepts that we get when we
talk about economics, we tend to forget that there are certain limitations. I think
it is very important that we realize there are certain limitations.
Take full employment, for instance. If we want to talk about getting full
employment, it seems important that we know how many people we want to
employ. If that number is always increasing, it seems very difficult to deal with
that. There is just this concept of finiteness that I think is very important. The
way people tend to want to stand on this growth/no-growth issue right now, it
sounds like there are people for unimpeded growth, and then there are people
who say they want some kind of managed growth, but they still want growth; they
still want increase.
Well, I personally do not. If we are talking about an increase in numbers of
individuals, I do not see that that is a beneficial thing at all right now, certainly not
to the things I care about. Like I said, the concept of quality of life has a lot of
components to it, of which material goods is just one component.
T: I know that you have both global concerns as well as local concerns; that is
something that you mentioned in our pre-interview. Would you please reflect on
your global concerns in terms of your stand on growth vs. no-growth, and then
follow that with local concerns?
H: Globally, I have brought in this graph--it is obviously rounded off a little bit--of the
human species over time. Going back to A.D. 1, the population is considerably
less than 1 billion worldwide, and it increased very slowly over the next number of
centuries. Here at A.D. 1,500, it is still considerably less than 1 billion. Right
around where we get into the 1700s and the 1800s, it is starting to turn upward,
and then it just started shooting up in this last century. This is a typical J curve.
This is a curve that you get when you are talking about exponential growth.
It is really strange that most people do not have a good handle on exponential
growth. It is the kind of situation you get where you have doubling. If you take
a course in microbiology, you deal with a monoculture, a single bacterial species
on a petri plate. There is a certain lag time while this population slowly
increases, but you have organisms that are doubling at a certain rate. At the
very end, they are still doubling, but you build up a large base in terms of
numbers of these monocellular organisms. Suddenly, in just one doubling, you
have a huge number. If you look at a bacterial population growth curve in a
closed, finite system, like a petri dish, it shoots up, and then it starts shooting
Now, the human species is smarter than bacteria growing in a petri plate, and I
think that we can come to terms with this. We can realize that it is not in our
best interest it is not in the best interest of the ecosystem for us to have this
kind of growth. A lot of people are realizing that. What seems strange to me is
that people here in this country at this time in history tend not to want to deal with
it and face it. I feel like we have a big responsibility to start dealing with that.
Twenty or fifty years ago, people were more interested in talking about it than
they are now. We had the [President Ronald] Reagan era when [the thinking
was] "Oh, we are going to have a good time. We are not going to think about
the serious problems we face." Meanwhile, those problems are growing and
growing and growing. So I think it is very frustrating.
T: Why do you think people were more apt to talk about it before? Are you talking
about the 1970s?
H: I guess so. It seems like in the 1960s and 1970s people were talking about
these things, but I don't know why. One of the factors is there were a few writers
who made certain kinds of dire predictions that did not come true. That led other
people to say, "Well, you predicted these massive famines, and they didn't
happen." Those things didn't happen, and maybe it was unwise to have made
such specific predictions. But we still have a situation where we have a finite
system the planet and we have this species that is growing at an exponential
rate. Sooner or later, in one way or another, it is going to outrun its biological
base, and the sooner we start to deal with that in some serious way the better off
we are all going to be.
T: Are you concerned about the exponential growth because as the species begins
to grow there is poorer quality of life for all, or because after it reaches a peak it
begins to drop drastically, as you said, as with bacteria?
H: Well, all of those things, and more. I think at some point you are going to get
poor quality of life for all. One thing that is happening now, unfortunately, is
there is a great polarization. There are the haves and the have-nots in terms of
countries and in terms of human population groups and things like that.
In one of the readings in the economics class that I am taking right now, there is
an offhand statement made about the world's continued human population
growth: it may present some problems for feeding all these people, but we think
we can overcome those problems. This provides a wonderful marketing
opportunity for us. You can have all these Third World people, and we can sell
them lots of things, while we in the developed world will make lots of money in
I find that appalling! Never mind the human suffering that may result from
having all those people. Never mind the nonhuman suffering and the nonhuman
extinction that is going to result. This is a wonderful thing for the capitalist
system in the short run. In the long run, even the people who are padded by
more money and a developed society are going to feel the effects. I think that is
happening here in Florida. I think Florida is going to be one of the places where
we in the developed world are really going to come to terms with what growth, as
far as human population growth, really is going to mean for individual people.
T: Ronnie, how did you become interested in environmental issues?
H: Well, in a way, I have to say that it is kind of a life-long interest. It is funny in
that, as I was growing up, I was responding to lots of things that were going on
[without being aware of what they were]. I grew up in Pinellas County down
around St. Pete. in the 1950s, and there were lots of rapid changes going on,
things that are in some ways just getting underway up here in Alachua County. I
had a very negative emotional response to that kind of thing going on. I would
come home from school, and all the beautiful oaks that I used to climb in were
suddenly lying down on the ground. I did not really understand why that was
happening, but it was pretty awful to see it going on.
When we first moved to that land we came in when I was three; I was born in
California it was a beautiful upland. There was a horse pasture all around the
place where my parent's home was built, and as the development came in, the
trees came down, houses went up, a perfect green lawn went in, and a few little
palm trees were put in. And some people, probably from the North, would move
into the house and stand outside for hours watering the grass, spraying for
chinch bugs, and things like that. Sidewalks went in and asphalt went in, and
the native species, the animals that I knew and played with when I was a kid, like
the gopher tortoise, were being wiped out.
I knew it was going on, but I did not really deal with it cognitively the way I do
now. For one thing, I was a kid, but for another thing, it seemed, as I remember
it, that no one talked very much about those things. This was just sort of
accepted as inevitable this is the way human society progresses, and nothing
can be done.
I think that is all in question now. I think that certainly the people here in
Alachua County who came from places like Pinellas County or Dade County -
people who have seen this before are going to make a stand here, or they are
going to do something, at least. They are going to talk about the process.
They are going to question the need for it, and I think things are going to change.
It may be slow change. It may not be the kind of change that I would like to
see. Not only is this "growth" not inevitable, but what is inevitable is that sooner
or later this kind of change, this kind of destruction of the biological system, is
going to have to come to an end. That is something we can feel pretty sure
about. The question is when and how.
I guess I really became an environmental activist in the late 1970s or early
1980s. It was kind of sudden for me, and I guess that is part of the reason why I
am as outspoken as I am now. I grew up on one level aware of these things
going on but not really confronting it intellectually. I was very involved in school;
I was very involved in certain activities in the early 1970s that took most of my
time. So when some of the things that were going on started coming out in the
news, I did not have much time to pay attention to it. For instance, I got my
undergraduate degree in zoology. One of the things that I considered was
graduate work in zoology in a tropical rain forest. I knew that the life, the
number of species, was so rich down there, and I just thought it would be
fascinating to do work down there. I did not know in 1970, when I got my
bachelor's degree, that the tropical rain forests on the planet were being
destroyed at an incredible rate. I did not know that. My professors did not tell
me about that. It was not in the media the way it is now. I ended up going to
medical school, and I was very involved [in that] for a number of years. I was
sheltered from the changes.
Then in the late 1970s I started surfacing from all that and seeing what was really
happening. I was hearing things like we may lose a million species by the year
2000. I remember that dire prediction. That is one that is going to be hard to
refute, I think, but it really snapped me to attention. My reaction was what in the
hell are we doing to the planet? What kind of leaders do we have who will allow
this massive destruction to go on? How can we possibly not realize that we are
undercutting the biological base that we depend on for our lives, to say nothing of
the creatures we are driving into extinction?
Right now, I am in a philosophy program, and one of the major issues that I hope
to address in my dissertation will be the ethics of driving species into extinction,
which I am surprised to find out is difficult to address on the basis of what has
gone before in ethics. For one thing, we have never faced this situation before.
We did not have to come to terms with the fact that our species is actively driving
hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other species into extinction. In past
generations, philosophers did not have to deal with that as a problem. It was
already starting to occur, but it certainly was not occurring on this kind of scale.
At any rate, I suddenly started finding out these things in the late 1970s. On the
global scale, it was the tropical rain forest, where the majority of the Earth's plant
and animal species the biological diversity, the richness of life--is concentrated.
Also, at the local level right at the same period of time, I remember reading an
article in the Gainesville Sun about the creation of the Gopher Tortoise Council,
[an organization formed in part to save the gopher tortoise from extinction]. I
thought in my lifetime here is a species, the gopher tortoise, that is going down
the tubes. When I was a kid they were all around, and I had to remember that
when I left St. Petersburg there were not so many around anymore. When I was
growing up, there was a little tiny hatchling that built its burrow in our yard and
lived there for years as I was growing up. I think it was still there [when I left for
college], and it was still pretty small. These tortoises grow very slowly, and they
can live [for a very long time]. They are sort of like humans in their time scale.
They need to be maybe fifteen years old before they can reproduce, and they
can live to be sixty, seventy, or eighty years old, maybe more. [They reproduce
so slowly that if the few that get to be adults are killed, the population is in
trouble.] There was this one growing up as I grew up, and I loved having this
animal out in my yard. I would feed it hibiscus flowers and things like that, and
he would come out of his little burrow and eat them. Of course, it is not there
now. That also has been eliminated. The whole tortoise population in that area
of Pinellas County is probably gone. There is a very busy street now just a
block away from where we used to live. That used to be a little path. [There is
no more wildlife there.]
At any rate, when I read that the Gopher Tortoise Council was being formed
because interested people lay people, biologists, and professionals were
coming together to deal with what was happening to this one species, that really
hit me somehow. It got me involved at the local level. You see, the gopher
tortoise is a creature of the uplands, the nice, dry, sandy habitats where builders
like to build. Now, we've come a long way in getting good protection for our
wetlands, but it is going to be hard to get upland protection. I think we really
need to get upland protection [for all the upland species, including the gopher
T: So these things prompted you to become an environmental activist. What types
of things were you able to do as an environmental activist? Did you band
together in different organizations? What types of things can you do to try to
stop the different habitats from being encroached upon?
H: In light of the recent county commission election, for instance, it leads one to
question whether you are doing any good at all. I think we are, but it is a very
difficult process in some ways. Personally, when I started getting active, it was
really a revelation for me. I had always been very quiet and shy and unwilling to
speak out about things. When I went through school, I would do anything to get
out of giving a report in front of the class or anything like that. But suddenly the
things I really cared about were very clearly being threatened, and I was amazed
at myself to find that I could get up and speak in front of the county commission
or I could get up and speak at a meeting of the [Florida] Game and Freshwater
Fish Commission or at a number of different places. I was not thinking about
myself anymore; I was thinking about these creatures and the land and the
issues. Somebody has to say these things; somebody has to do it. It may be
an unpopular position, but damn it, somebody has to do it.
There was a period of time when I went to meetings of some very
middle-of-the-road environmental groups, like Florida Defenders of the
Environment. I went thinking that these people must really be doing this job,
and they must be confronting these issues. I heard these very anthropocentric
discussions about recreation or getting along with the developers or something
like that, and I would get very frustrated. Sometimes at the end I would get up
and tell them the way I felt about it, that essentially, at least in some instances,
they were really selling out, and what I thought should be the principles that they
should hold. And everybody would get mad at me, and I would probably just
leave. Later, though, I would hear from some of the people. They told me that
after I left they got down [to business] and discussed some of those points that I
had brought up, and maybe that did some good.
So for a long time I have seen my role as having fun bringing up issues that
people are skirting and avoiding, like the population issue. The population issue
is certainly an unpopular issue among good liberals, for instance, and I think that
is very intriguing. I am getting more and more interested in it, and it may play a
big role in my dissertation just because anything that is kind of a taboo issue is
intriguing to me. I want to talk about it. I want to get to the roots of it.
T: So you feel that you must be outspoken because you are involved in an
unpopular issue that people otherwise would not discuss?
H: Well, I think that is certainly true when you are dealing with issues of the status of
nonhuman creatures, for instance, which is another component that some people
would say is separate from environmental concerns. I have been involved in the
so-called animal rights movement. In medical school, I was involved in
experiments on nonhuman primates, so I feel like I have seen that from the
inside. There are a lot of ethical problems with experimentation on nonhuman
animals, and I think that a lot of people realize that now. Back in the early 1970s
when I was involved in it, you really could not talk about it. A few people who
cared about things like that could talk among themselves, but it was a very
difficult thing to bring up. Now, at least there has been discussion about it, and I
think overall it has certainly been very positive, although I think there is a long
way we need to go.
I also need to say that my personal orientation is to put more of my energy into
dealing with species that are really being driven off the edge. I am glad there
are other people who are dealing with things like cruelty to domestic animals and
things like that. But some of those creatures are too populous--our companion
animals, for instance. Then there is the livestock industry. That is of interest to
me, [too, but my primary focus is on wild species that are threatened with
extinction, because when they are gone, that's really the end of it].
I guess probably the major revolution in my thinking, which was latent even when
I was a kid because I always cared about other species, is anthropocentricism,
which is a word that means human centeredness. Everything revolves around
what is going to benefit the human being, and you don't really care very much
about everything else. The more I think about it, that is really the keystone to
the change in thinking that I think is important, even for the welfare of the human
being. We have to begin to see beyond our own species, think ecologically, see
the whole planet, and see the whole ecological community out there in each part
of the planet. We have to see things in that way, even if we only care about our
own survival. If we don't, we aren't going to put things together in the right way.
T: Ronnie, let's talk about Alachua County past, present, and future. What are
your concerns? What issues have arisen about the environment?
H: Well, I have been in association with Alachua County on and off just about all my
life. My dad was up here and got his master's degree when I was a little kid. I
was living in St. Pete., but I would come up and visit him. Then when I was
about ten, I guess, my mom was up here fulfilling her continuing education for
teachers. Then I went to medical school here back in the early 1970s. Most
recently I have been here going on ten years now, so I have seen a lot of
Again, I have to say that [my reactions to] most of the changes I saw when I was
younger were at a less conscious level, although I certainly had an emotional
response to them. There is a lot more pavement here now and a lot less
wildland than there was.
In the last few years, I have become more and more aware of the environmental
destruction that was going on. There are certain business establishments and
certain apartment complexes that I watched being built in certain places that I
had to drive by every day on my way to work. I saw them scrape the land clear,
and then I watched the buildings go up. There is a particular apartment complex
down on Archer Road now. They built this wonderful thing, but now they are
having trouble renting it. I have this sort of disgust with regard to things like that.
Then right across the street I watched an "eating-and-drinking establishment" go
in. They scraped the land clear there and put up this stupid little box. They are
still not incorporating architectural ideas of solar heating and cooling and all those
things. No, they put up a little box. I remember one day they put up some kind
of massive air conditioning system on it, and you could see that from the road.
Then the next day they put this little wall around it so you couldn't see it. I
remember deciding I would never go in there. Sure, I do patronize some places
around here, even though I wish they were not here, but some of them I just
decided I am not even going to go in there once. I have never gone in there
once. I have never gone in the Oaks Mall addition [Oaks Mall Plaza] yet, either,
although I was not that personally involved in the issue over the oaks trees there.
We can talk about that later, maybe. I do not particularly like to go to the Oaks
Mall, but occasionally I do.
T: Go ahead and tell us about the oak trees that had to be cut down. What is your
H: Well, we may get back to this later if we talk about Earth First! Some of the major
people involved with Earth First! here felt that that issue was very trivial
compared to the larger land-use issues that are going on in the state of Florida.
When you are trying to save a major piece of wildlife habitat, you can't get too
excited about a few oak trees that are surrounded by concrete, anyway. I
basically have to agree with that. But, on the other hand, these may be the only
oak trees that a lot of people are going to see, because most of the lives of many
people really involve going from a home in the suburbs to the mall and back. If
those people care enough about those trees to stand out in front of them with
some signs, I think that is a really positive thing. That shows that even people
whose lives are really embedded in this whole lifestyle are starting to think a little
bit. I think it was good that there was a controversy there. Even though the
wheels of "progress" are still grinding, I think maybe they are grinding a tiny bit
T: What other issues in terms of the environment have come up during the time that
you have lived in Alachua County in which you have been concerned?
H: Over the last eight to ten years, I could not count the number of times I have
gone to meetings and hearings at the city commission or the county commission,
for instance, on the conservation element of the land-use plan. I was a member
of the Hazardous Material Committee for the city of Gainesville for a while. In
some ways, that was a little peripheral to my main interest, which is in wildlife
and natural ecosystems. But all of those things are important concerns. They
take a lot of time. A lot of things are very immediate. It is kind of like just
damage control that's going on. Drive down Archer Road, and suddenly there is
this bright orange sign on this wooded lot: Notice of Land Use Change. You call
and find out that somebody wants to rezone and start developing the area or put
a business there.
Right now, I live close to the intersection of Archer and Parker roads. A local
politician, who I guess should remain nameless, had tried for several years to get
about twenty acres rezoned. The owner apparently has had opportunity to sell
it, but I guess he could not get the kind of price that he wanted. He has tried to
get the thing rezoned, but [what he wants] does not fit in at all [with the
surrounding land use]. It is really residential around there, and there are a
couple of businesses that are kind of run out of the home. Then there is a
minimart that was put there against the wishes of a lot of the people who live
there. When they finally put it in, they put it in in the kind of way that says that
we are not really changing the zoning, but we are just putting it there ["by special
exception"]. They made a little exception [to the land-use plan] to be able to do
that with these convenience stores, anyway. So now, of course, he points to the
store there and says, "Since you have that, now you should zone this so that I
can have my business."
The latest thing is, since they would not rezone for him, now he wants to get an
amendment to the comprehensive plan. I think he is asking for a rural cluster
there, which would eventually be some sort of activity center that would compete
with the businessmen in Archer, which they are not going to like, but basically
would really change the residential character of the neighborhood there. A lot of
people will fight it, but [the pro-"growth" people] wear you down.
Of course, [I am concerned about] not only these things close to home, but I
have gone to a lot of meetings because someone called and said, "They want to
put some monstrosity on the edge of a lake that is near where I live," or they
want to cut into this natural area, or change that, or put a road through. So you
go and talk about your concerns to the commission. It is usually very frustrating,
because it is sort of a fight to get one or two commissioners who would listen and
care about these things. We still do not have a majority of people [on the
commission] who make environmental concerns a priority, so you just watch
legislation be passed that you do not like. Occasionally you are able to soften it
a little bit. I guess that is sort of the feeling [of frustration]. But you still feel like
you have to do it.
I wanted to talk about how the environment is a real personal involvement for me.
Every new bulldozer swath that is cut into a natural area really affects me in a
personal way. In fact, that is the second category I was going to get to as far as
effects of growth. I guess the business community or whoever that speaks with
such disdain about the environmentalists may think these people just like to
come and frustrate progress. They just like to make trouble. I cannot speak for
all the people who speak out for environmental concerns, but for me just driving
on Archer Road every day and seeing the bodies of the creatures that have been
killed on the road [is evidence that development and maintaining the natural
environment are not compatible]. Sometimes I stop and drag them out of the
road. I hate to see them sit there and get run over and bloat and everything. I
just feel it in a very personal way.
About a year ago I found a Sherman's fox squirrel that was a lactating mother
[that had been hit by a vehicle] out on Parker Road. Sherman's fox squirrel is a
species that probably ought to be protected much more than it is right now.
Biologists feel that it is really in trouble. They are larger squirrels, and they need
open land. They need to run from tree to tree across open land. Grey squirrels
are doing fine. They do fine in urban habitats, and they are taking over as the
tree canopy closes in. Sherman's fox squirrels are losing their habitat, but they
are still on the hunting list. I remember stopping the car and looking at this one
it was still warm. It obviously had some babies somewhere in a nest that were
probably just going to die. Parker was not a paved road until a few years ago,
[but now it has lots of traffic].
I am sure the person [that killed it] did not intentionally hit it. But it just shows
the human impact [when they move into an area]. Everywhere you look, there
are human impacts, and every time you add one more human, you just magnify
those impacts. Right now, for instance, off Williston Road they're cutting into the
woods and putting in a lot more apartment buildings that may not fill because
we're having problems with a high vacancy rate. Of course, they want to bring
more people here so they can fill them up. Well, here are all these woods going
down. The first day I drove by there and saw them starting to cut into the
woods, there was also a racoon that had just been hit by a car right in the middle
of the road. I don't know that that was cause-and-effect, but, obviously, the
habitat is going. Like I said, I personally react to these things. I feel the pain.
Sometimes I will be coming by after they have recently cut a swath and are gone
for the day, and I may stop and walk around a little bit to see if there is anything
that I can rescue. That's how I got involved in tortoise relocations. [That's not
the solution to the "growth" problem, but] that is one thing that can be done.
T: Tell us about that relocation that you are working on.
H: The gopher tortoise is a creature that builds a tunnel that may go down twenty or
thirty feet in the upland habitats. It is really important for a lot of other species.
Over three hundred different organisms vertebrates, other invertebrates, all
kinds of things will live down in this tunnel. It kind of provides habitat,
especially in the really dry sandhill areas. If you lose the tortoises, you are going
to lose all these other species. The best known are the gopher frog, the Florida
mouse, and the gopher cricket, which all really depend on the burrows. They
will be completely gone. Then there are the indigo snake and burrowing owls.
Ecologically, the tortoise is really important.
As far as development goes, when an area is bulldozed, I would love to see
somebody do a study of all the species that are affected: where they go, what
happens to them, how many are killed outright, how many die soon thereafter,
how many go somewhere else and have to fight their way in for new territory, and
things like that. But it is pretty hard to do that. It is pretty hard to keep track of
them, and it is pretty hard to go in and catch them and move them in most cases.
But the tortoises, you know where they are. You see the burrow. You can tell if
it is active or not. You can go in and at least trap the tortoise, and you may be
able to catch some of the other commensals that live in the burrows with them.
In the last few years the [Florida] Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has
started allowing certain individuals in certain cases to relocate tortoise
populations. One of the hard things is to find a place to move them to that is not
going to be developed later on, someplace where they will be protected. I have
been involved in several of those now.
That is another painful thing. The first one I did was this Coventry [subdivision]
that Barry Ruttenberg developed off of NW 23rd Boulevard. I did that totally as
a volunteer. People get paid fairly well now for them. But I just wanted to make
sure that the tortoises were moved. I put in hundreds of hours walking on that
land and checking the traps, and it was really painful when they just started to
tear the woods down.
T: Are you moving them to other locations in Alachua County or statewide
H: Well, there are regulations about how they can be moved. They can't be moved
very far north or south because they think there may be different populations
adapted to different climate conditions. Those tortoises were moved out to the
Jonesville area, which shortly thereafter made a lot of headlines as a place slated
to have some pretty rapid development. But they went to the land of one of the
professors at the museum who is in wildlife [and wanted to have his place
"restored" with tortoises].
T: What are your thoughts about the future in Alachua County? What needs to be
done to protect the environment, to slow down growth?
H: I think the main thing is people's awareness needs to expand, to take in the
nonhuman as well as the human, and also to recognize the changes that affect
themselves as humans. I will get back to that in just a minute.
Let me tell you one positive thing that is going on that relates to the gopher
tortoise. I will probably be involved in a relocation this summer for Bob Rowe, of
Haile Plantation. It is intriguing that he sees this as a marketing opportunity,
and, for quite some time, I have thought about it that way, too. It is certainly an
opportunity that developers can take advantage of. As people become more
educated and I think that is happening, maybe slowly, but it is happening they
are starting to appreciate the native species that we have and the natural
communities, and they want to enjoy that, not just this perfect green lawn and
little palm trees. Haile Plantation is laid out in a very ecologically sensible
manner. They have cluster housing. The houses are close together so that
they can leave more open land, and most of the land is [left] in its natural state.
They do not have all these great lawns [for people] to spend their time mowing,
and some of the people I have talked to who live out there really appreciate that.
But he has a tortoise population that probably should be moved out of the area
because a road extension is going to go through there, and we are going to try
moving them to another part of Haile Plantation, which is a dry retention basin,
and try native landscaping with some plants that the tortoises are used to. They
do pretty well there now just with grass, but we could make it even more
attractive, both for tortoises and the people. They are really fascinating for
people to understand and watch. They are gentle, they are vegetarians, and
they can be very compatible with humans, unlike other wildlife species. They
are very social. They spend a lot of time interacting. The males will go up to
the burrows of the females and bob their heads to entice them to come out. You
can watch these things.
It is going to be kind of an experiment, because this retention basin has a
number of homes on one side of it, and we are hoping it can be something that
people will prefer to having just a bunch of grass there. It will be something that
will be attractive and interesting. Haile Plantation is one of the few places where
dogs are supposed to be on a leash. Dogs can kill the tortoises. Kids could
and should be educated about not taking them home and putting them in a box.
It should be a demonstration of the fact that humans and at least certain native
species can live in a kind of harmony and have a positive effect. So I am
excited about that. As development goes on, it does not have to be as negative
as it usually is. Some developers can set a good example and can even make
money off of it. People say they pay a little more to live in a place where there is
a lot more nature around them.
T: Ronnie, you just gave me an example of big business or developers working with
the environmentalists. Do you have any other examples of their working
together, or has it been the case that most big business owners and developers
do not work with environmentalists?
H: I think that really depends on the individuals you are talking about. I could not
really address that very well right now, other than to say that some are a lot more
interested than others. But I personally perceive that this is a growth industry. I
think if someone like Bob Rowe and there are a few others who has indicated
an interest in this kind of thing is recognized for offering that kind of a residential
community, and if people indicate that they are interested in living in that kind of
a situation, then I think there could easily be a trend toward that. I think that
would be positive. I would certainly like to see land not be developed at all, but if
it is going to be developed, it certainly could be developed in much more
ecologically harmonious ways than it is in many cases now. And I think that
once the developers realize that it is in their interest to do that, things will get
T: Do you see a new profession coming out of this? For example, now a developer
might use a landscape architect to just put the pretty green grass and trees in.
Do you see a similar position for an environmentalist who helps you take into
consideration the wildlife and the habitat and all of that?
H: Definitely. It is something that I have only started to think about fairly recently,
but I think that could also be considered a potential "growth" industry. If we start
putting all the components of the ecosystem back together, including the human,
and we could have a much richer kind of environment. I am hoping that people
will get interested in that.
T: Let us move on to Earth First! Tell us about Earth First! Exactly what is Earth
First!, and what is their involvement with growth vs. no-growth?
H: Earth First! is a movement, an organization, and a journal. As an organization, it
started somewhere back around 1980, maybe a little before. It was at least
going in 1980 because I subscribed to the journal sometime around then, and I
have some of the earliest issues of it. It was put together by some people who
had been involved in the mainstream environmental movement and had gotten
very frustrated with it. They felt like everything was compromised and
everything was giving up this and giving up that. They just wanted to take a
stand and say it is time to turn all this around.
Earth First! is more a land-based movement than, say, the animal rights
movement. But I consider all of these things compatible. To me, overcoming
our anthropocentric bias that always puts the human being before anything else,
and within that always puts economics above everything else, is the primary
thing. Earth First! is certainly a manifestation of a new viewpoint, as is the
animal rights movement "in general." So is the Green Movement, which is
probably best known from the Green party in Germany, although Green parties in
some fashion are springing up in lots of countries all around the world, including
this one. So, to me, all of these things are linked. Some people [in these
different movements but who share the non-anthropocentric viewpoint] are
arguing among themselves, but I think that is nonproductive.
Earth First! is an organization that started basically out West. If you are asking if
it is a journal, a group, or a movement it is all of those things and more.
People can say they were Earth Firsters even though they never go to meetings
and never read the journal, but they incorporate this viewpoint in some way.
There is a whole gamut there. There are people who write letters and go to
meetings and in some ways are very mainstream. They may have responsible
positions in the [U.S.] Forest Service (God help them) or some other
bureaucracy, and yet at home have this viewpoint. Then there are other people
who are out there monkey wrenching, spiking trees, wiping out bulldozers, and
things like that. I think it is good that there are all these different kinds of people
I think that is probably what it is going to take to really wake up [the rest of the
people]. I am interested in waking up the mainstream and getting them to
become aware of what is going on and reorient. Right now, this process of
getting that mainstream awake [is taking place]. Sometimes you have to hit it
hard. Maybe you have to have some sort of monkey wrenching going on. It is
a concern of mine that that kind of monkey wrenching be nonviolent in terms of
not endangering human or nonhuman lives. It always strikes me as being very
ironic when I see signs going up like "No trespassing. Anybody found walking
on this land will be prosecuted," because [what they really mean is] we are
getting to destroy it all! Well, that's okay. There is really something wrong in
the way everything has been set up, and Earth First! is challenging that set-up on
a lot of different levels.
T: You spoke of the Green Movement. Is the Green Movement associated with
Greenpeace we have heard about in the news, the organization that has the
ships that go to sea to prevent whales from being harpooned?
H: That would be another manifestation of that kind of attitude, overcoming
anthropocentricism, thinking in terms of the Earth as a whole. Earth First! has
often been compared to Greenpeace, I would say, in terms of direct-action
tactics. Earth First is just more land based, and Greenpeace more water based,
I guess. At least, that is the way I look at it. But they definitely share that kind
of activist orientation.
T: You have interests in growth management. Tell us a little bit about that and how
it relates to life here in Florida and Alachua County.
H: Well, in specifics, I am concerned right now about concurrency. I think this is
probably going to be the big political issue of the next year or so in Florida
politics: the Growth Management Act of 1985 and whether or not it is going to be
overturned. There is movement underway from the development community to
challenge concurrency, the idea that you cannot develop until the infrastructure is
in place for handling that [population] growth. It is really interesting to me. All
this time we have been told we need growth, growth, growth. Of course, very
little attention has been paid to separating out economic growth and population
growth, etc. "It is all growth, and this is all good for us." It is still handed to us
in this way.
I have here a final report of the state Comprehensive Plan Committee to the state
of Florida that was done in 1987: "Keys to Florida's Future: Winning in a
Competitive World." It is like we are competing against all these other places
for "growth." It's funny, because what we have been told, and what we are still
being told, is that we will all benefit in some way because more growth -
specifically, more people means more prosperity for us all somehow. We want
to "increase the tax base" by bringing in all these new people. However, now we
are being told, and politicians are admitting, that growth does not pay for itself,
and we who are already living here in the state of Florida, who are its present
taxpayers, are going to have to pay more in taxes to provide the services and
infrastructure for all these new people.
Maybe somebody in economics could explain to me in some way that I could
understand better than I do now how these two positions can exist side by side.
If on one hand they are going to tell me we want more people to come down here
because it is good to increase the tax base, and that is going to make us all more
prosperous, why is it that growth does not pay for itself? Somehow we are
going to have to pay a lot of money to provide for these people. I can
understand intuitively why we would have to pay to provide for these people.
Yes, of course. You have a lot more people, and they are going to need a lot of
What I am very unclear about, and very skeptical about, is how these additional
people are going to benefit [you and] me. Now, I can see how they are going to
benefit a developer, a real estate salesman, or maybe somebody who owns a
retail business and wants to sell things to more people. But I do not understand
how it is going to benefit me. As a student, it is certainly not going to benefit me.
When I was working for the University, I was not clear how it was benefitting me.
If I were out there working as a salesperson in a large retail business, for
instance, would that benefit me? Well, maybe I would get a raise, but then I
would probably have a lot more people to wait on during the day. It is unclear.
If I were unemployed or underemployed, would this benefit me? Well, maybe if
somebody came in and opened a store I could get a job, and if I did not have a
job [before], I would be benefitted when that store came to town. However, if
five people move down from Ohio who might have more education than I do or
might have some other sort of advantage, they might more likely be hired than I
would be. So I think these are very important questions, and I think somebody
needs to be asking these questions instead of everybody jumping on the
bandwagon and saying we all agree that "growth" is good.
This is an incredible document in some ways. When you look at this, they make
these dramatic assumptions that we all share this dream of "quality economic
growth." They throw around these glittering generalities. There was one that
was pretty amazing.
T: Does quality economic growth exist? Is that what the question is?
H: Well, [I do not know]. I want to know exactly what it means specifically for me
and for other people. I want it to be spelled out, just like some of the specifics
that are going to be coming up in the near future. For instance, they are going
to talk about a gasoline tax. They want us to pay an additional ten cents or
more per gallon to pay for road building and road maintenance. Well, I do not
mind paying for road maintenance [for our present population], even though, in
the long term, I might say we would probably be better off if the population were
smaller than it is today. [But let's say] I will go along with its being what it is
today. Now, when it comes to taking money out of my pocket so I can pay to let
developers build new roads through land that is presently wild and put new
houses on that land, I have to say, "Hey, wait a minute. That is the exact
opposite of what I as a person want."
If I care about wildlife and I would like to talk about this more later on--the last
thing that wildlife needs is new roads to break up the blocks of wildland that we
presently have. There are certain larger mammal species the panther, the
black bear and also intermediate sized mammal species that really need these
large blocks of land. And they need interconnected large blocks of land,
especially if the largest blocks are already too small for their requirements, which
is the case in certain of the larger mammal species. Building new roads is going
to directly impact them in a number of ways. Not only do you have the road kill
and the direct habitat loss, but the fragmentation itself is genetically bad for the
All of those things are major concerns of mine. They are at least somewhere in
the concerns of many people who live in the state. If we are taxed to put in new
roads, that is going to directly impact these concerns in a negative way. Now, I
want to know how I am supposed to balance that. How is it going to benefit me?
Well, it is not going to benefit me if they build a toll road between Jacksonville
and Tampa. They are saying that a toll road will pay for itself in tolls. But it will
certainly have the same effect as far as damaging the environment. And if we
are talking about taking money directly from this tax and building other new roads
through unbroken land, who is that going to help? That is going to help the
developer, that is going to help the real estate industry, that is going to help
certain other people. It is not going to help you and me. If it is, I need to be
convinced of that, and I think a lot of other voters, when they start to think about
it, are going to need to be convinced of that.
I can see this whole road-building thing, which is one of the main parts of the
"concurrency" concept of the Growth Management Act, and its demands that we
have infrastructure in place before we bring lots of people and lots of
development in as something, I am hoping, that will serve to, as I said before, get
the attention of the mainstream, make them start thinking, and make them start
asking these questions. Basically, until somebody can explain to me very
specifically how I am misperceiving the situation, and I tend to doubt that they
can, it seems to me that it is a big scam that developers now want us to
dismantle the Growth Management Act so that the taxpayers can pay to put in
infrastructure that will benefit only the developers and a few development-related
industries. I think that is a scam, and I think that we need to call them on that
T: Earlier you mentioned that larger mammals need larger areas or larger habitats,
and not only should they be large but they should be interconnected. Tell us a
little bit more about that in terms of the wildlife corridor.
H: The wildlife corridor concept is something that Dr. Larry Harris, a professor here
at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, has done a lot of work on.
Of course, many biologists have to agree that it is the kind of concept that may
help if anything can help rehabilitate some of the populations of the larger
mammal species that have been seriously depleted in the last few decades.
Here in Florida, we have the panther and the black bear that have been
especially hard hit. These are creatures that used to have habitat through just
about all the state. They have gotten pushed back into the vanishing wildlands
as the human population spread out and have gotten to a point where the
amount of area that they need to range through is larger than the amount of
wildland that is there. Then you start having problems like a large number of
black bears getting hit on the road in certain areas because this is an area where
they have to migrate through human habitation and human development to get
from one part of their original range to another part of it.
The importance of [isolated pockets of a particular species goes beyond the road
kill. You need to have a certain size of a population in order for that population
to be genetically viable over time. If you get fewer individuals than whatever that
critical number is in some small land area, and they cannot breed with individuals
that have become isolated from them, then eventually the inbreeding may just
take its toll on the population. So if we want to sustain the populations of some
of these species over time, we have to make some sort of provision for that.
This idea of building a toll road through the [Katharine] Ordway Preserve, for
instance, just underscores how important it is to agree that we are not going to
cut up large remaining blocks of land any further. The remaining blocks of
wildland are very precious to the future of the wildlife we have. And we have to
agree that, at some point, this has to be protected in perpetuity.
But since these blocks may not be large enough, we are talking about joining
them together with some sort of a corridor of wildland that wildlife can travel
along unimpeded. Now, one example [of such a corridor] is along the banks of a
river. This whole thing about the Suwannee Trails setback, for instance, is
another thing that goes directly counter to the idea of linking up and having
wildlife corridors. It is ludicrous to think that if you leave 75 feet or 150 feet as a
buffer from the edge of the river, and then have all kinds of human activity going
on [in there], you are going to get a significant flow of wildlife. Maybe you will;
they are desperate. But then you are also going to have this matter of human
and wildlife interactions, which can be a problem.
If we leave significant buffers along rivers and there are other kinds of features
that could be used to link things together, as well, even things like power line
rights-of-way and railroad rights-of-way and come up with a system of
incentives for landowners, such as if a portion of their land were left wild that
could join this area with that area, some sort of tax break, or some other sort of
incentive, we could put together a workable system of interconnection so that
wildlife would have their own highway system, in a sense.
But that means that where there are intersections with our highway systems, we
need to do something there. We have these underpasses going in where they
are putting the interstate through over Alligator Alley. We do not really know
how well that is going to work. Some of the biologists wanted much larger kinds
of underpasses. This was sort of a compromise. We hope this will help. But
in lots of other places we need to consider things like that as well.
Even on a smaller scale, [progress can be made]. For instance, right here in
Alachua County, I travel certain roads all the time, and I am becoming aware that
there are certain places where wildlife crosses roads. For instance, I have seen
at least four otters that have been road killed in the stretch along Archer Road
from the Fred Bear Drive area down to [just east of] 34th Street. You wonder
what an otter is doing crossing that road. What body of water is it going from or
going to? Probably there is a whole system in there that they travel through
somehow. There is an area of Archer Road just east of 1-75 where they just put
in this Firestone place where they work on your car. Lots of turtles cross right
there. I found a snapping turtle trying to cross the road a few months ago.
These are big, mean turtles that are hard to pick up. And just about two or three
days ago I found a cooter that was right in the middle of a lane. I was able to
stop, run back, pick him up, and take him down to the wetland he was trying to
get to. [But most of them do not make it.]
Humans could design the way they live to be compatible with the way other
species need to live. We need a lot more research, and we would need to have
a commitment to doing it, but we could do it. This corridor concept, I think, is
very modest. Some people apparently got upset a year or so ago [over some
maps drawn up by] Reed Noss. (He worked with Larry Harris at the wildlife
school here and is very active in Earth First! He is now in Oregon.) He had
drawn up these maps, and they got printed on the front page of the Gainesville
Sun, which made some people very upset. "You are going to take all that land,
and you are telling us we can't develop it so that wildlife can cross from one place
When you think that at one time, before humans came here, this whole state
could have been filled in as places where these larger mammal species could
roam. We are not giving them a hell of a lot if we give them that [bit of corridor
land], and I really don't think it is too much to ask. They were here first. To me,
like I said before, it is even a question of ethics. At some point, we have to say
our species will give a little, because it has [already] taken so much, so other
species are going to be able to survive, also.
T: Thinking about that concept on a national basis, it seems as though it would be
impossible for some states to use a system like that because of the high amount
of development in certain states and the number of large cities. Is Florida
unique in still being able to even consider something like this?
H: I don't know. At this point, I would say that probably every state could come up
with something on this order that could improve things for wildlife. Now, the
city's urban wildlife would be a separate thing, I guess. But most states have
cities and then they have open land, and where they have open land, they are
going to have some populations of wildlife, although some of them may be
severely depleted, and some species will have gone locally extinct.
There are also reintroduction programs being carried out in certain places.
Wolves are being reintroduced in certain places, [for instance]. In fact, that has
even been discussed by some people for Florida. So I would say that right now
it is not too late. I would not want to come up with any area that I would say you
can just write that off. Some people might say that you could just write off south
Florida, and maybe that is true for some of the very urbanized parts of it, but [that
is not true of] the state as a whole. I would say that, if we act now, Florida has a
wonderful opportunity to put something like this into place and see how well it
works. But lots of other places can do it, too.
T: Ronnie, what type of support does the local government, the Alachua County
government, provide to environmental concerns? I know you are active in it and
many people involved in environmental groups are active in it, but does it really
work unless the government gets behind it?
H: I guess that is probably the major sticking point right now. We need to have our
decision makers actually committed to ideas like this, people who really do
consider environmental issues as very critical. I think a lot of people that this
course is interviewing are involved in that kind of political struggle right now.
Even having a few people in political positions is not enough if you cannot, at
least some of the time, have the majority agree to go along and consider the
environment before certain other concerns.
T: Have you worked with the local government at all in trying to get these concerns
H: I have been to a lot of meetings, and I have given them my comments on a
number of things. Sometimes I have felt like I have been heard, and other times
I have felt that what I said was just falling on deaf ears. It is hard to say.
T: Tell me what types of recommendations you gave the local government. Is it
necessary for ordinances or plans to be drawn up or just sympathy toward your
H: No. You definitely need to have plans for implementation. The one that I have
been involved in the most is the conservation element of the land-use plan, which
has gone through a number of changes. Right now, I have signed off. I can't
do anymore. Going back several years, the county had a good environmental
staff. The county Department of Environmental Services had several individuals
who were really committed to doing something significant and coming up with the
conservation element of the land-use plan. See, all the counties of the state are
mandated by law to come up with comprehensive plans, and it has to do with this
growth management legislation. So there was a good conservation element.
There were things even then that I probably would have liked to have been made
stronger. Basically, it took an approach of really trying to protect what we have
left and still allow for development. But there were guidelines. I do not have it
in front of me, so I cannot be very specific about it.
At any rate, I went to a good number of meetings about this, and a lot of other
concerned citizens did, too. There were opportunities to have input in writing or
to make comments at the meeting. Then the conservation element sort of
vanished from the scene for roughly a year. The meetings stopped occurring,
and we stopped being notified about discussions.
Then it reappeared, but it was quite different. Most people said that it had been
gutted. The wording had been changed. Things that used to say something
"shall" be done were turned into something "should" be done, which, apparently,
in a legal sense, really weakens the force that it has. [In effect, the new wording
said,] "If the developer wants to do it, he should do it, but if he does not want to,
well, that is okay, too." I should have brought that with me. A lot of things that
had been in it had been taken out or were modified in some way. In fact, when it
first appeared there was language to the effect that conservation activities will
have to be compatible with development activities, rather than the reverse.
There was considerable public outcry. For instance, during this time a fellow
named [Richard] Tarbox was put in charge to pull in the reigns of the people in
environmental services [for Alachua County], as I understand it. He had been a
developer, so he was still guided by those sorts of interests. I think that had a
lot to do with [the outcry]. Also, the people involved in the [state] Department of
Transportation had quite a bit of input into changing the plan. Things like that
were going on, kind of behind the scenes. During this period of time when there
was no opportunity for public input, these changes were made. It seems from
what has been said by certain people who seemed to be in the know that these
were the major figures behind it.
At any rate, there was considerable public comment when it did reappear. As a
result, some of the language was changed, and they did change it around so that
"development" was to be "compatible with the environment" again and things like
that. But it seemed that the major weakening was going to stay.
I went to a number of meetings on the new plan, and it seemed very clear that
they were not particularly interested in taking public input, certainly not to the
point of making major changes to the new plans. So I have not even gone to
meetings on that in the last few months. I just got very discouraged. I got very
discouraged with the elections. I am also very busy at school.
Sometimes you just have to fall back and regroup and then get involved again at
a later date. There will be more hearings on the conservation element, and I am
sure there will be many more times that I will have to go and say something at
these public meetings. Little by little, as the mainstream starts to wake up to
some of these concerns, I think that, in the long haul, some things will improve.
The problem is that we can lose so much in the short run by bad decisions that
are being made before these changes come into effect. I think there are a lot of
developers out there now who know they better grab for everything they can get,
because sooner or later we are going to have to deal with the fact that we cannot
go on forever like this.
T: Tell me a little bit about your perceptions of the local press. Just as you need
the government on your side to get things done, you need the press to get your
story across. I would imagine a lot of people are not even familiar with many of
these environmental concerns in their day-to-day lives.
H: That is absolutely correct. If the idea is to wake up the mainstream out there,
get them to perceive that there are problems, and start them thinking about what
the solutions might be, you have to have the media carrying the appropriate
messages. And if the media start to serve as a filter so that certain messages
do not get through, then getting people to wake up is going to be much more
I think that is the kind of thing that has started to happen here with the
Gainesville Sun, and I find that very disturbing. With the new management that
has come in, it seems that some of the things that were covered before that time
are being covered less well. It is hard to pin that down without actually going
back and digging out newspapers out of the stacks and comparing. For
instance, meetings on the conservation element sometimes do not have much
announcement in the paper, where previously they had. Previously they had
been well covered.
I remember several times when I have personally called somebody at the Sun to
remind them of a meeting in the next day or two on conservation. I would say, "I
hope you will have a notice to that effect," or "I hope it will be covered by a
reporter." There have been times when I have been told that something like
that will not be news. Or, after the fact, they would say they just did not think
that was a very important story, or something like that.
There are other sorts of things that have gone on. Somebody is making the
decision what is news and what is not. For several years now there has been a
group trying to develop some way of acquiring a green belt around Gainesville. I
do not know all the difficulties that lie behind not being able to come up with a
good plan for doing this, but, at any rate, time has gone by.
One of the tracts that apparently was on not only the local list but also the state
list of areas that really ought to be preserved was called Hickory Sink. It was out
between the Haile Plantation area and Parker Road, west of Gainesville. As I
understand it, there were maybe 3,000 acres in there that they wanted to
preserve--this very pristine, upland, longleaf pine habitat. There is also a cave
somewhere on the property that has some rare species of bats in it.
At any rate, the person whom I think newly came to be in control in that property
decided to have it logged. Reed Noss and I went out there to see it when
someone told us about it. They were taking out the longleaf pine. A lot of
people do not realize that probably most of the upland area of the state was in a
longleaf pine, turkey oak, fire-adapted community. The remaining longleaf pines
that we have around may be the oldest organisms we have here. Some of them
might be 300 or 400 years old. If you see a really big one and it is a longleaf,
that has probably been here longer than [just] about anything else you would
see. So here were these logging trucks, and there would be two or three trucks
backed up at the gate coming out with the longleaf pines on them. Reed was
very upset about this because he had been involved to some extent in the
discussions about getting the green belt. He had taken part in studies that
focused on that land and the different species that were on the land.
Anyway, he told the Sun about what was going on. This was being logged, and
one of the reasons why had to do with the problems of getting it together to
acquire the green space. This is the kind of thing that is going to go on with a lot
of other areas that we would like to have included in green space. It is not to
say that the person who owns it should not be allowed to do anything and not get
any compensation for his land, but it behooves us to come up with some way of
compensating these people if we do want to protect areas like that that really do
The Sun sent a reporter out, and apparently somebody interviewed Reed for over
an hour. It sounded like they were going to do a story on it. Time went by. A
couple of weeks passed, and nothing came out. Finally, Reed called them and
asked where the story was on this. They said, "We decided that that was just a
private logging operation, and it really was not newsworthy at all." So Alachua
County has lost a significant part of what could have gone to a green belt.
Now, maybe many of the people who would have read that would have said that
the land owner had a right to do that, so there is no real problem. It still could
have been news, and had it been reported as news, it might have been an
incentive for people who were concerned to say, "Let us try to figure out what the
problem is with the process of acquiring the green space. Let us try to hurry that
up and work something out." But if it is not news at all, then who is going to
know? [Only] a few people who live out there and the people who see the
logging trucks come out. Meanwhile, all the species living there are wiped out,
and that's it.
If you sit on a news story, or if the decision is made that this is news but that is
not news, it's kind of scary when you think what kinds of interests enter in.
Maybe they always do to some extent, but certainly an effort could be made to
balance things like that.
Maybe we can talk now about some of the local election concerns. I mentioned
Hickory Sink and the conservation meetings that seem not to be reported on, at
least not fully and not to the extent that they had been before the new
management came in to take over the Sun, because the problem is not just what
happened at the election time. I am sure there are a lot of other things that have
changed as well that I might not know about that other people might have known
Concerning the election, it seemed very apparent to people who had been
involved in some way that there were facts about George Dekle that were not
being put into print that could have been, and there were things about Jim
Notestein that were being magnified. In the months leading up to the election,
time after time you would read about how combative he was at a meeting, how
argumentative he was, how he stood in the way of business being passed along.
I did not attend every meeting, but I was never present at a county commission
meeting in which I had any feeling at all that Jim Notestein was being in any way
rude or in any way obstructionist. He would ask questions about things. He
would try to get points clarified. Of course, he was serving a different master
than the people who were putting the developers' interests above other things, so
it is certainly true that he would have a different point of view. But I never saw
him do anything I thought would merit the kind of bad-mouthing that the Sun was
giving him during that period of time.
Now, I know there was a meeting where somehow enough commissioners were
absent that he and Penny Wheat seemed to have the upper hand, and they
passed a number of items [the other commissioners might not have passed].
Perhaps they should not have been so eager to do that while their colleagues
were out of town or whatever, but you can sympathize with them, since most of
the time they would sit there and lose vote after vote, three to two. So you can
understand why they might have wanted to take advantage of the situation. Be
that as it may, it just seemed like a character assassination that was going on. It
just seemed uncalled for, and it seemed to have a political purpose. Of course,
It was interesting when Clay Phillips lost. Clay Phillips was obviously somebody
who was chosen because he was a Pollyanna type. He was a Democrat and
was going to be for controlled growth, but he would not take an antagonistic kind
of a stand. So it certainly looked like it was going to be hard for Notestein to
beat him. People who were supporting Jim Notestein were really worried about
that race, and I am sure the Sun was absolutely stunned when Phillips lost.
Frankly, I think one of the things that contributed was the fact that there was this
big rainstorm on the day of the election, and the people who were going to vote
for Notestein were going to go vote, come hell or high water. While Clay Phillips
was a nice guy, the thinking may have been yes, I would vote for him if I were
going to go, but I don't think I'll go out in the rain. I think it was sort of along
As soon as it was apparent that it was going to be Notestein vs. Dekle, I realized
right from the start that the Sun was probably going to endorse Dekle, just
because they had been doing this bad-mouthing of Jim Notestein all along. I
almost wrote a letter to the editor to say, "It is going to be really interesting when
you have to show your true colors and support somebody who clearly has a
terrible environmental record. You are going to have to go on record as a paper
that at one time liked to be perceived as a pro-environment paper, but you are
going to have to support an anti-environment candidate if you are not going to
support Jim Notestein." Of course, that is what they did. They really tried a lot
of ways of obfuscating that, but that is still what happened.
I personally know about some of it because George Dekle bought my parent's
house about a year before the election. Apparently he had wanted to get my
parents to move out in about three weeks time or something, which was pretty
unreasonable to ask people in their late seventies and early eighties to move
entirely out of a house that rapidly. The whole deal, I think, was very
questionable, and I am amazed that my parents agreed to do any of it. They
had decided to move, and somehow this seemed to be what they were willing to
do. But at some point they had to tell Dekle that they could not be out that fast.
I was not present at the time, but my understanding was that they invited Dekle
and his wife to come over and discuss the matter in their house, the house he
was buying. When they told him that they just could not be out that fast and
they needed more time, he threw what my parents have described as a temper
tantrum. He screamed and yelled and pounded on the table, and they were
completely amazed. They did not know that he was such an explosive kind of
When this race turned into a personality contest, with the Sun really not talking
much at all about Notestein's record but talking about what kind of personality he
had, how combative he was, my father and I finally decided that we ought to
contribute at least some sort of a picture of what George Dekle was like. So we
finally wrote letters about this, which the Sun did not print. I do not like ad
hominem arguments, but if the Sun was going to make it boil down to some sort
of a personality contest, which is basically the way they did their endorsement,
then these issues really were important issues.
At the time we were writing these letters, we did not know that Dekle's
ex-neighbors in Cross Creek were also writing letters about how explosive his
temper was and how they had witnessed a number of strange things that he had
done. The incident where he was found apparently trespassing and hiding (shall
I say it?) with a camera in the women's restroom of the Cross Creek Fish Camp
(I have to say I did not witness this myself, but I heard it from a number of people
who apparently were on the scene) was kept out of the Gainesville Sun as long
as possible. I can see why it would be devastating for that to appear in print just
before the election. Apparently he was cited for trespassing in relation to that
incident. It was public record. However, Sheriff Lou Hendry did not want that to
be released, and the Sun did not want to discuss it until it appeared in the
[Jacksonville Florida] Times-Union. What finally appeared in the Sun was
When you put all those things together, it certainly looks like the media was doing
everything it could to filter out negative things about one candidate and magnify
negative things about the other candidate. I think in a race as close as this one
was, the Sun certainly had a very large effect.
T: So, Ronnie, it appears that environmentalists might have the perception that the
Sun is more big business oriented than is concerned with the issues of the
environmentalist. Is that the case?
H: I would say, at this point, definitely so. It came to a head with the election, but
that was only part, like I said. In fact, I was involved in a couple of protests in
front of the Sun. The first one was kind of a spontaneous one. I was out with
people who were protesting the Hunt Club property, and we were unhappy with
the way the Sun initially had been covering that issue. They later covered it
much better when it came to be a popular issue. At any rate, we were packing
up and leaving, and somebody said, "Hey, we are going right by the Gainesville
Sun on the way home. Why not stop there for a few minutes and show our
displeasure at the way they cover a variety of issues?" Well, we did, and it was
It took them quite a while to get a reporter out there. They finally did, and I
watched as she took down what different people said. Different people gave
different reasons for being there. Some were specific about the Hunt Club
protest. I remember one person specifically said that he did not like the [Sun's]
"editorial stand." Then I said although I know they have a right to take an
editorial stand that may disagree with mine, I was really very concerned about
[their] reporting of the news, that it should be accurate and unbiased. What was
very interesting was the way they reported that. Obviously, somebody got in
there and filtered through what I had observed that reporter write down on her
notepad, because what came out was very garbled and very different. That, to
me, simply confirmed what I had been saying: there is some sort of filtering
process going on.
On the other side of that, there are good things about the Sun. It certainly does
do a good job on some of the environmental issues that it does decide to pursue,
and there are some good people on the staff of the Sun. So it is kind of a
problematic situation. I am one of a number of people who have come together
to support the idea of another newspaper's coming and covering the area. I
would like to see that, but I also have to admit it does seem that a community this
size may have trouble supporting two major newspapers. If we are stuck with
the Sun, it would be nice to have the Sun be responsive to our concerns and at
least give a balanced reporting of the different issues as they come up.
T: In terms of community support for environmental issues, do you find that most of
the personnel wanting to come out and be counted comes from the citizenry of
Alachua County, or do you find that a great deal of the people coming out are
students or graduate students here at the University of Florida, or a combination?
H: I would say more the community at large. I would have to say that my
impression of most students is that they are at a distance from the concerns of
the community, except for the students who have been here quite a while. I am
an older graduate student, and there are a few others who have lived in the
community, so we maintain that kind of connection.
One of the problems is the mobility of our society today. You grow up in a place,
you go to school in some other place, and you probably get a job in some other
place. If you play the academic game, it is pretty well assumed that you are
going to have to do that. You get your degree, and then you have to go
somewhere else. Then if you want to climb up the ladder, you have to leap all
over the country to do that. While that may have some sort of advantage
intellectually I am not convinced that it does I think you are certainly paying a
price in not really understanding the systems of the land that you live on and not
really feeling any kind of commitment to it. If you are just going to live in a place
for a few years, [you may think] development will be good because we will get
more money when we sell our house and things like that. You may never have
a chance to really understand the [environmental] problems that you would get if
certain kinds of decisions were made. You aren't committed to the land, you
don't care about the land, and you don't understand the land. If people who
have that kind of orientation make up the majority of the people in the society, I
think you are eventually going to get some problems just on that basis. If the
people who are connected to the land want to develop it and make a big profit,
then it does not leave very many people who are there to speak out for the
T: In closing, I would like you to elaborate on the future. You are active not only in
environmental concerns, but you are a student. You study the environment and
environmental ethics. Leave us with what we can do in terms of the future.
What are your recommendations? What are your opinions, so that perhaps
something might be done about the course that you presently see us headed for.
H: I guess I have to start with more theoretical and abstract considerations that on
down the line could become a lot more concrete. I guess to me the biggest
thing is converting from this growth-oriented approach to everything. Something
is always getting bigger and expanding. In a finite system, that cannot go on
forever. I see what we need to do is convert from this growth-centered mentality
to a sustainability-centered mentality. We have to start asking questions like
what kind of community can be sustained on a piece of land over time. If we are
really seriously thinking about that, we are going to have to deal with concerns
like what is the maximum or the optimum number of humans that ought to be on
that piece of land.
What is the optimum number of humans that could have an optimum kind of
lifestyle on that land? Included within that, depending on how you would define
an optimum lifestyle, would be all the other species. In my opinion of an
optimum lifestyle, all the other component species would also need to be
represented in some sort of optimum population, certainly a population that could
sustain itself over time. There are lots of alternatives to the way we live now that
could foster a much richer kind of community that could be self sustaining. That
is one thing that I see we need to do.
Coupled with that, of course, is overcoming this extreme anthropocentricism,
which puts humans at the center of everything, and the extreme
"economicocentricism," I guess [I could call it], which puts abstract dollar
amounts at the center of those concerns. I think we have to break out of both of
When you think about what is really essential, what is really basic, the biological
systems are the things that are really basic. We are living organisms. We are
tied to this land, into an ecosystem, and we depend on it to sustain our lives.
When abstract numbers are dictating our courses of action such that these
courses of action undercut our biological base, there is something wrong there.
I really have a lot of faith in humans as a species. We are a very adaptable
species potentially, if we would just wake up and realize that economics is a
game that is our [own] creation. We can change it, and we certainly ought to
change it if it is making us make very bad decisions biologically. We can do
When I think about the scams that are going around locally and statewide and
beyond, it seems like certain things have been set up in this game to benefit
certain individuals. Those individuals want all the other humans to go along with
them and not think too much about it and not think about changing them in any
way. But when when we start to realize that we do have the power to make
changes, then we can really do quite a bit.
I really do not think the message is one of pessimism. I think the message is to
step back and look at the whole picture, and try to ask the most fundamental
questions that can be asked. Then you will see that we have a whole wide
range of opportunities here. There are lots of things that can be changed, and
lots of things can be made a lot better.
In the short run, more specifically, I see kind of a head-to-head combat coming
up over issues such as the roads and the D.O.T. Twenty-Year Plan vs. wildlife
corridors, for instance. Things like that seem to be two very different divergent
paths to two different futures, and people are just now becoming aware that
these are choices that we are going to be making in the near future. Are we
going to have some kind of growth management, or are we going to just throw
out all the regulations and let things go as they please? I don't think we will go
that far. I don't think people are even going to try to promote that.
But how much are we going to change this American dream idea of continued
growth, of continued business? Sure, we're always going to build new roads.
Sure, we're always going to have more concrete and more asphalt. We are
reaching a point where we are going to have to realize that that dream needs to
be modified. There is a leveling off, and then there is a maintaining. We
maintain the roads that we have, but we do not build new roads at all. The
people who used to be employed in building new roads are employed in
something else, whether in maintaining existing roads, improving those in some
way, making them more compatible for wildlife, making them more compatible for
other sorts of human purposes, like adding bike lanes. There are lots of things
that can be done. But what needs to be done in the future is not the same as
what we have been doing up to this point, and I think that is a realization that we
have to get to.
Something that I am involved in now that I hope may lead to this is the Green
Movement that is forming around the world. There is a group of people in
Florida that is putting on the second Florida Green conference at the end of this
month, and I am going to be involved in that.
The theme this year is something called Bioregionalism, which is a term that
most people in Florida probably have never heard of. It means very much to
some people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. It is a
matter of appreciating the land that you live on. It is the opposite of what I was
talking about when I was talking about social mobility. It is really understanding
that you are part of a system, whether it is the watershed of a certain river or the
slope of a certain mountain. Whatever it is, it is what makes that place where
you live something unique. The other species that live there contribute to that
uniqueness, and [so do] the other human cultures that were there once, such as
certain Indians that lived there or ethnic groups that have come in. It involves
trying to appreciate those things. That is all a part of a bioregional
consciousness that I would like to see develop in Florida.
It may be a little harder in Florida. People in Earth First! in the West look at
people in the East and say, "You don't have much going on back East." Well,
things are different in the East. There are different problems; we are facing
different sorts of pressures. In Florida, those pressures may be more extreme
and more diffuse. There are a lot of people coming from somewhere else who
do not sense the connection to the land in Florida, and it is becoming very
important for us to educate people and foster some kind of appreciation of it.
I was very surprised and pleased to see how many people came out in
opposition to this toll road idea. I was driving down the road, and a Cadillac in
front of me had a bumber sticker that said "No Toll Road." I don't know why this
person is opposed to it, but I am very pleased that this person is. Perhaps that
means that maybe we have gone far enough with certain things, and maybe we
need to appreciate the land that we live on a little more, and maybe we need to
reorient our priorities. I just hope we can see that [happen].
And I hope people can start to see, even on a very microscale, [more community
concern for the environment]. For example, there may be a so-called empty lot
with a development sign, and there is a gopher tortoise burrow on it. I hope
somebody would notice that and carry their thinking a little bit further: if that land
is bulldozed and nobody moves that tortoise, there is going to be a slab of
concrete laid over that burrow, and that tortoise will probably take six months to
starve to death down there. And a lot of other critters down there in the burrow
will die with it. We can think about these things, and then we can figure out
ways to avoid the things that are going to be bad. That is a microscopic piece of
the whole picture.
What I am hoping for, personally, is that the mainstream, Ms. or Mr. Average out
there, will start to make these connections in her or his mind and will start to put it
together. I don't think the problem has ever been that people don't care about
these things. I think people do care about these things. I think that most
people just do not know and have not put the picture together. And there are a
few people who realize that it is in their interest that people not put it together,
because right now they are benefitting [from the collective ignorance]. Most of
those people probably do care on some level. I have been to meetings where
we are discussing what ought to happen to a certain piece of land, and the
person who wants to develop it will actually admit, "I agree. I would just as soon
leave it in this natural state, too. That is probably the best use for it. But
economic factors make me have to develop it." If we can just start to realize that
if we do not want it developed, and they really do not want it developed as far as
the land use goes, maybe we can change the whole system somehow so that
bad decisions are not made and bad land-use actions do not occur. We can at
some point start working together. That may sound like a lot, but somehow it
certainly does not seem impossible.
T: Thank you very much, Ronnie. We really appreciate the time you devoted to
H: Thank you. I really appreciate being able to do it.
[End of the interview]