3 years ago

American Magazine: August 2014

jokes Eikenberg, who

jokes Eikenberg, who spends most of his time wearing a suit and working on dry land. Standing on a swath of soggy soil the size of a pitching mound, he’s surrounded by saw grass that reaches above his knees. “If there were high levels of phosphorous, fertilizers, or pollutants in this water, it would change the entire dynamic of what we’re seeing right here,” Eikenberg, 38, says. “All this saw grass would turn into cattails. Cattails are the tombstone of the Everglades, because they thrive off phosphorous. When we see too many cattails we know there’s too much pollution in the water. These saw grasses demonstrate a healthy part of the system. When we see this, you know the restoration efforts are succeeding.” Environmental rehabilitation is not a field for those inclined toward instant gratification. Progress in the Everglades has been marked for years by tiny victories that pale in comparison to bureaucratic delays and inaction. It’s a one-step-forward, two-stepsback process, the pace of which can seem as sluggish as the flow of the river itself. Complicating matters is the reality that restoring the Everglades, the largest and most expensive environmental project in history, is about much more than just the environment. Like the plants and animals here (some of which don’t live anywhere else on Earth), human beings have an insatiable appetite for the Everglades’ chief resource— water. “Water is the new oil,” Eikenberg says. “The minute you lose control of it, you’re finished.” Not long after Florida achieved statehood in 1845, its newly minted legislature concluded that the Everglades needed to be drained. Politicians haven’t stopped fiddling with it since. Over the next century, a series of dikes and canals built to enable agricultural and residential development artificially altered its natural flow, which runs southwesterly from “WATER IS THE NEW OIL.THE MINUTE YOU LOSE CONTROL OF IT, YOU’RE FINISHED.” its headwaters at Shingle Creek in Orlando, through Lake Okeechobee, into Florida Bay. After a massive hurricane—the secondmost deadly in American history— killed more than 2,500 people in 1928, President Herbert Hoover ordered construction of a floodprotection dike in Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then connected canals that enabled it to empty water from the lake both west into the Gulf of Mexico and east into the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps no year has been as important to the Everglades as 1947, when Everglades National Park formally opened and Congress formed the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, which built 1,400 miles of canals, levees, and water control devices. That same year Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an activist and writer, published The Everglades: River of Grass. The book remains highly influential and is credited with popularizing 32 AMERICAN MAGAZINE AUGUST 2014

PHOTO BY JESSICA HODDER the term “river of grass,” which had been used by Native Americans indigenous to the area for years. (Much of the Everglades is still in Miccosukee and Seminole Indian territory.) Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, is a folk hero to many environmentalists, and parks, statues, and schools are dedicated in her honor. It was from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County that Eric Eikenberg graduated in 1994. “You could see the Everglades in the outfield,” says Eikenberg, a baseball player who moved to south Florida from his native Long Island after ninth grade. But Eikenberg, intrigued by a school assignment to follow the 1992 Bush-Clinton presidential election, found politics more fascinating than environmentalism. So he headed to AU for college, where he immersed himself in the Washington culture by interning each semester in a variety of roles. In the office of House majority leader Dick Armey he studied the Contract with America. He worked at the Heritage Foundation think tank and at a lobbying firm. As an intern in Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office he was taught how to make Cuban coffee. Prior to his junior year, he served as a page at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. It was a thorough, only-in-D.C. education that cemented his interest in politics. When Eikenberg’s friend, future U.S. senator George LeMieux, asked him to run his campaign for the Florida statehouse immediately after graduation, he jumped at the chance. “That previous December I did the twoweek [School of Public Affairs’s] Campaign Management Institute, and we were assigned Jim Bunning, who was a member of the House running for Senate,” Eikenberg says. “All those consultants, all those experts came in during a condensed, intense period of time to explain the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Being able to carry that out six months later in an actual state legislature race was exciting.” LeMieux came up short, but Eikenberg’s behind-the-scenes political career was off and running. Because five college internships weren’t enough, he spent his summers in the Fort Lauderdale office of Rep. Clay “THE POLICIES OF PRESERVING THIS ECOSYSTEM ARE ALL VERY MUCH INTER- TWINED IN THE POLITICS.” Shaw. When the receptionist took a leave of absence, he was hired, and after a later stint in Tallahassee with the state Republican Party, he ran Shaw’s 2000 re-election campaign. It was a razor-close race, one slightly overshadowed by another election being contested that year in Florida. After a two-week recount (hanging chads and all), Shaw won by 539 votes. At the age of 26, Eikenberg moved back to Washington, where he served as Shaw’s chief of staff until the 13-term congressman was voted out of office in 2006. Next it was back to Tallahassee to serve in the administration of then-governor Charlie Crist, for whom he was chief of staff from 2008 to 2009. He was working as a lobbyist when the Everglades Foundation called in 2012. “You may ask, why the Everglades?” he asks from behind his desk. His office is on the sixth floor of the former Burger King corporate headquarters, which overlooks picturesque Biscayne Bay south of Miami. Two pairs of binoculars, for bird watching, rest on a window sill. “The policies of preserving this ecosystem are all very much intertwined in the politics. Clay Shaw was the author of the House’s comprehensive Everglades restoration plan that Bill Clinton signed in 2000. In a weird way I’ve [always] been around this Everglades issue.” Formed 20 years ago by hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and the late developer George Barley, the private nonprofit Everglades Foundation is not a typical environmental group. Its board members, who include singer Jimmy Buffett and golfing icon Jack Nicklaus, hail from throughout the country and harbor views across the political spectrum. The foundation raises nearly $7 million annually, employs five scientists (including hydrologists, wetlands ecologists, and environmental engineers), lobbies politicians on behalf of the ecosystem, and aims to increase education and awareness about the issues surrounding it. “Eric impressed us from the first moment we met,” Jones said when Eikenberg was hired. “He has a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve success both in Washington and Tallahassee and he has the leadership skills that will help the foundation continue to be at the forefront of Everglades restoration.” In the summer of 2013, nasty blue-green toxic algae began bubbling to the surface in several central Florida waterways. This picture is not the postcard that masses of chapped-lipped northerners have in mind when they migrate south for a brief vacation or a permanent one from winter. “Who wants to buy a million-dollar home with smelly, toxic algae in the water?” Eikenberg asks rhetorically. FOLLOW US @AU_AMERICANMAG 33