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Greg Knecht

Water For Fighting
Water For Fighting
Greg Knecht
Learn more about the work Greg did to help restore the Everglades and its associated natural systems with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Learn all about The Nature Conservancy’s presence and mission in Florida. Learn more about how you can help support the mission of The Nature Conservancy Please support our sponsors, RES and Sea & Shoreline. Sea & Shoreline is a Florida-based aquatic restoration firm that is on a mission to restore Florida’s water bodies and to protect our coastline communities against severe storms.  You can check out their projects at www.seaandshoreline.com RES is a national leader in ecological and hydrological restoration, offering nature-based solutions with guaranteed performance through innovative delivery options. Discover more about their work and commitment to Florida and its environmental challenges by visiting www.res.us. Our theme song is “Doing Work For Free”, by Bo Spring Band (Apple Music) (Spotify) (Pandora)

Welcome to Water for Fighting, where we discuss the past, present, and future of water in Florida with the people who make it happen. I’m your host, Brett Seifers. This week’s discussion is brought to you by Sea and Shoreline and Resource Environmental Solutions. Sea and Shoreline is a Florida-based aquatic restoration firm that’s on a mission to restore Florida’s water bodies and to protect our coastline communities against severe storms. You can check out their projects at seainshoreline.com. And of course, RES. RES is a national leader in ecological and hydrological restoration, offering nature-based solutions with guaranteed performance through innovative delivery options. Discover more about their work and commitment to Florida and its environmental challenges by visiting www.res.us. I’m so excited to introduce this week’s guest, Greg Connect. When I met Greg, he was at the Department of Environmental Protection where he worked for two decades on some of the most consequential environmental restoration programs in the state. He’s now the newly minted executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Florida, which is why I’m so grateful to have stolen a little bit of his time for this conversation. So let’s get right to it. Welcome to the podcast, Greg. Thank you, Brett. Honored to be here. Nice. I usually start at the beginning with these conversations, but since it’s so fresh for you, let’s start with how it’s going with the new gig you’re just named in March, right? The executive director. Seven weeks ago. Yep. Okay. First of all, congratulations publicly. And second, have you had a chance to come up for air yet? It’s certainly been a whirlwind since I started the interview process was, was pretty intense in organization like TNZ that’s, it’s global. And in this case, you know, we have 50 state directors. I’m one of 50, but Florida is an incredibly important state for the organization. So it’s pretty rigorous. They take it very seriously. And so one of my commitments. as part of the interview process was to get out on the road and meet our board of trustees and meet some of our donors and get out and meet staff. So I’ve kind of been on the road the last seven weeks out meeting people and including partners. That’s awesome. Now that we got that part out of the way, and then we’ll talk more about, obviously the conservancy later on, but I wanna start and get back to the beginning for you. You are a Polk County boy, right? I am a Polk County boy. Winter Haven. Is that where that’s, okay. Yep. And like our mutual friend, Jennifer Fitzwater, your family’s actually from Missouri, right? St. Louis, Missouri, or the outskirts, yeah, I guess. What brought your parents to Florida? Great question. My father was a chemical engineer, went to school in Missouri, met my mother, his wife, there in Missouri, graduated from Missouri School of Mines. with a degree in chemical engineering and got a job with US AgriChem. Ended up with a job here in Florida, in Polk County specifically, Winter Haven, working as a plant manager for US AgriChem, in Fort Meade, in Wachula, in Bowling Ground, the metropolises of those back in the 60s. Yeah, and those are my old stomping grounds when I was at Swift Mud, and I know that those are not what you would call your typical bustling metropolises. So you live in Winter Haven, which I guess like almost dead center in the county, right? Pretty much so. Yeah. And going down south to Fort Meade and Wachula where your dad was working, it sounds like an interesting backstory. Tell me a little bit about him personally and why he made some of those choices. Well, I think at the time, I’m guessing it was probably about a 60 minute drive, depending on where he was going, which plant we moved to, to Winter Haven because it was. I’m gonna say metropolis. There wasn’t a whole lot in Winter Haven at the time either, but it was a larger city. And so he just decided even as his job kind of went further and further south or the mines expanded further south just to not move the family because we had already put in roots in Winter Haven. I’m so glad that I literally went to elementary all through high school and still meet people that were like, oh. I went to Winter Haven High School. And so there’s, being in one place for 18 years, or in my case, going to a community college there really did kind of form a long bond with a specific place that you watch change just over time as well. Yeah, I guess getting that obligatory, anytime I talk to someone else, we spent the, till I was about five years old in South Lakeland and grew up in East Hillsborough County. So I’ve got, anytime I hear somebody from Polk County, it’s the obligatory, can you believe how huge Polk County is now population-wise? I mean, it’s enormous. I think we’re 700, maybe pushing to 750,000 people. I mean, when I was there, this is 2015 to 2005 to 2007, it was probably 400,000 people, 450,000 people, incredible. Yeah, it’s definitely changed when I, even in junior high and high school, I worked. citrus and cattle after school or you know with a friend of mine is he was in the citrus business and you know all those places I drive down there now and they’re you know they’re all gone and they’re you know they’re subdivision so yeah it’s definitely changed. Is it I mean is it weird for you I guess that’s I mean that’s the description is the same you know same with yeah I think anyone that you know grew up in these kind of suburban areas is how much it looks different than the place you grew up. And I grew up in the middle of what used to be orange groves and strawberry fields. And it’s just, it’s houses. Yeah, I mean, there’s that, right? So there’s just kind of the stark contrast. And what I would say is it all kind of at least ties back to the nature conservancy or conservation for me in thinking about those places that the pastures I worked in and those orange groves and the importance of agriculture. my afternoons when I wasn’t working fishing specifically, you know, Lake Roy, those places really had an impact on me. And as I see those going away and recognizing that we’re losing more and more, you know, natural spaces and agricultural spaces, it’s a great concern. And we’ll get to, I think, a little bit more of that later because I think it speaks to a broader conversation. I would say. interesting, somewhere between interesting and exciting things going on in that regard. It seems like it’s getting some significant attention, but let’s stick with a bit with those early days in Winter Haven and what Greg Connect was like growing up. If someone follows you on Instagram, they know that you spent an immense amount of time outdoors. Was that always your MO? Oh yeah. I was, like I said, fishing. You know, a friend had a John boat, pretty much water-oriented during dove season, hunting after school with my buddies, between that and then, you know, getting the car and that side of things. Probably typical smile, what I would say small town, America boy and his, you know, that had access to the water. You couldn’t beat it. I could walk, every day I could walk halfway around a lake just with a fishing pole and just have a. Yeah, it’s one of the interesting things. It’s been such a while now that I forget the stat, but Polk County has something like 550 odd lakes. I’m like, you know, beyond the other, you know, gorgeous natural features, like that’s an enormous number of lakes and places to recreate and be around. So very cool. When you were a kid, did you have any idea what you want to be when you grew up, so to speak? Did you know what you were going to study in college? Do you know what the plan for your life was? Did it have to do with the outdoors? Well, certainly had, I have vivid memories of getting National Geographic magazine and looking at, and it’s still kind of that way today, especially now that I know people who actually work with National Geographic like Carlton Ward, it’s pretty cool, right? But I think back in those days, and I would see these articles, and one that had a… pretty formative impact on me was, I can think of actually too, that my father was wonderful about having an evening conversation at the dinner table or after dinner, kind of sitting there chatting and asking me how my day at school was, blah, or what’s new. And I remember one, in this National Geographic, and I had to have probably been, I’m guessing 10 or 12 years old, but it really shaped the way I think about things. It was an article about shark fishing in the Sea of Cortez. And, you know, this, of course, National Geographic, the photography was amazing, you know, had this pretty graphic photograph of sharks, you know, in nets, you know, hundreds of them. And I was just devastated about this impact and went to my father and said, “‘Oh my God, we have to stop this. “‘This is just terrible.'” And I remembered my father saying, these people who were fishing for sharks to do, they have to eat. There were multiple of those conversations, whether it was National Geographic or other things like that, that as an outdoors person, I had this direction towards the outdoors and critters and all of that. For me, it was principally thinking about it from the wildlife standpoint and my father everything we do has an impact and it’s not as easy as just always thinking about in this case, the sharks or polar bears or whatever. And it seems like that’s kind of your, your general attitude, at least as, as long as I’ve known you is things are more complicated than just black or white. And so is that, is that kind of, that’s where it comes from is your dad’s on your shoulder, you know, so to speak, you know, in your ear saying, Hey, it’s, you know, look at, look at all the angles here. Yeah, certainly. I mean, he at least taught me to, you know, to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, if you will. And I would say that it brings back good memories of, you know, there were also conversations that there was that point that we just philosophically disagreed on how much impact was, you know, was okay, right? Right. And so, but again, what I would say he taught me was that… Everyone you meet in this case it happened to be my father isn’t always going to agree with you, right? and so you either have to figure out a way to work with those people or You know, you can just you can you can write them off But the you know, the outcome is probably not gonna be good certainly with family. Yeah. Oh definitely Although, you know Thanksgiving it’s weirder and weirder every year doesn’t yeah I want to talk about something for a minute because you and I were talking about how you were massive poor decision maker. I’m gonna lead that with saying that you were a cave diver. And I want you to explain to me, because I’ve asked this question of a couple other folks that I know that have done that, is are you crazy and why did you do that? Well, you know what I would say is, one, it’s not really dangerous if it’s done appropriately. I started diving in about 1983, and much like everything else in my life, Once I decide to do something, I mean, I don’t have 15 different hobbies. I really have, and my father actually said, you don’t have hobbies, you have, you know, they become passions. And so with diving, I didn’t go, you know, just learn how to dive. Then I actually started helping teach from the same person who taught me and then, you know, took more and more. And so it was just one more thing, one more place when you couldn’t go offshore or I didn’t have access or couldn’t make it to the Keys. It’s like, well, wait a minute, there’s really pretty water here in Florida. Why can’t I just figure out how to go do that safely? And so on top of that, like I said, once I kind of start something, I wanna kind of, I probably take it to the extreme. And so it was like, oh, well, not only did I learn how to cave dive, then it became Like, well, what’s the cutting edge? And so literally, you know, started doing, you know, mixed gas and all kinds of stuff. And the amount of effort that it was taking became too much, but it was amazing. And I’m so glad people are still doing it. Yeah. And I mean, you ended up teaching diving, right? And ran a shop as well. Was that all down in Polk County? Some of that made its way up here. I ran a shop in Winterhaven that was a water sports store. you know, when you’re young and you kind of think, oh, well, I don’t really need much to live on. Gee, if I can go diving every weekend and take people to Cozumel or whatever, what else could you ask for? And then, you know, at some point it starts to dawn on you that, yeah, but living in your parents’ home until you’re in your 40s, you know, it’s gonna be harder to find a bride. And so, you know, my wonderful now wife convinced me that, well, You know, she actually said she was coming up to at Florida State University. We were dating at the time and she said, you can come with me or you can, I’m going to use her words, you can stay here and be a bum. So anyhow, all of that to say, I came up to FSU and, and taught scuba here. And it was a, you know, it was a perfect opportunity. I want to take just a moment to talk about my friends at res. Florida is a treasure trove of natural wonders, but the cost of that treasure is our collective responsibility to restore. and protect its ecological and water resources. That’s where my friends at RES, the nation’s leader in ecological and hydrological restoration are at their best. 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All right, let’s get back to the conversation. Yeah, I mean I didn’t want to let to go unmentioned you and angela you know kind of the environmental power couple because she’s at Dp still um, and you spent many years there and was she a big part of influencing you in terms of professionally when you got past the diving Well, yeah, I mean, like I said, she’s the one who convinced me to finish school, has supported me ever since, including I joined TNC about 11 years ago. And so I’ll let you take us there in a minute. But you know, when I was contemplating leaving DEP after 20 years, like you mentioned, Brett, you know, I was hemming and hawing and you know, holy smokes, this is such a difficult decision to make. She was. And, and is amazing. She finally, one morning just said, would you stop, you know, this back and forth and just do it, everything will be fine. But you’re no stranger to changing things up. It was just at DEP for many years, right? You, I mean, you started out at, you know, gosh, this is about as bottom as you can get. I think an OPS job you had said before all the way, all the way up to, to where you were talking a little bit about that decision tree that got you to, to the end of those 20 years and then. and then beyond. Talk about some of those early days. You know, my very first job was as an OPS person, and this was kind of connected to teaching it, you know, teaching scuba at FSU and also cave diving at Wakulla Springs. I met the park director at Wakulla. His name was John Dodrill. And he said, hey, I have this, you know, this project on the river here, mapping aquatic vegetation. And the guy who was doing this project is in the Marines and got called up, could you finish this for me? And I said, well, sure. And it paid again, at the time, what seemed like a reasonable amount of money. And I got to spend every day or as much time as I wanted to on the Wakulla river downstream of where all of the boats could go. So I was pretty much all by myself on this incredibly beautiful place. And so I started there and finished that project and ended up getting an environmental specialist one job on water, working with what was at the time the point source section, like looking at point source discharges from wastewater, domestic wastewater and industrial wastewater plants, power plants and other things. And then- Well, hang on now. Let’s circle back to that first one again, because the unnamed Marine who would later on become- the secretary of DEP. And my boss, that unknown or the unnamed Marine was Mike Soule. I didn’t know it at the time until later on, he and I were actually talking and I said, you know, I did this OPS project at Wakulla Springs and he kind of gave me this look like, what are you talking about? I said, yeah, this. You know, I was told this guy ran off and left this project and it was just kind of a chuckle. Again, back to the small world of, you know, he and I working on this project together that years later he would be my, you know, would be my boss and I actually literally worked directly for him in the secretary’s office. Did in between job, you know, first job and him being in the secretary’s office and you and being directly under him, did you have, did your paths cross at the department much Not really. My career was always on the water side, both in the water quality standards program, what’s called the 319 program, which is the non-point source stormwater program at the time. At some point, I’m going to put in quotation marks, was fortunate enough to be asked to review this plan that was coming out. by the Army Corps of Engineers called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or actually at the time it was the re-study, asked to review it, right? And it’s this foot and a half thick set of documents and blah, blah. And I read it and made comments, but also thought, nobody’s ever going to do this. This is just the, I can’t imagine the restoration project this is. What year was that? Was that like 98 or something? Well, probably 98 when the re-study came out. The plan was authorized in 2000 by Congress. So, and that’s at that point is when I really got sucked into, you know, Everglades restoration. And that became pretty much my big part of my later part of my career. Let’s talk about that because obviously when you talk about, you know, foot thick plans, you’re dealing with something significant. You really did work on some of the most consequential restoration projects, probably in the world. I mean, certainly when you look at the Everglades, it’s enormous. But I want to talk about the first step in the North to South chain a little bit because I think it’s instructive for, for folks that don’t know or not familiar. You have the Kissimmee river, which had been straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers many, many years ago. And the state decided that. Hey, we need to do something to restore this to slow down the silt, the nutrients that are making its way to Lake Okeechobee, which then make their way to the Everglades. Were you involved at all with the Kasemi River restoration as well or did your milieu keep you farther south than that? You know, it’s like the system. It’s all connected. You know, the restoration of the Kasemi River had already been authorized and was ongoing when I, you know, kind of got… got involved with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. But I would say that was really what kind of, I think, gave a lot of people comfort that we could restore the Everglades. The Kissimmee was clearly not as big of a project, but there was and is recognition that if you help things along, you can. And I would argue the Everglades is another example of… With time and effort and money and all of that, we can do some pretty amazing, amazing restoration. Are there any connections in your mind? It seems to me like there’s this natural nexus between the Kissimmee River restoration, which required a lot of stakeholders working together because you’re going to need a bunch of land to, to rebend a river and what you’re doing now, which requires that kind of working together for. that common goal of protecting and preserving a place. I wasn’t a part of those projects or those conversations. I’m curious if you were able to draw anything from that. Oh, for sure. And I think that, and it’s been demonstrated over and over again, I mentioned this, you can either try to be collaborative and work with partners, or you can try to… essentially tell everybody how to do it. You know, the Kasemi is a great example of working with agriculture on putting the bins back in the river where landowners, a certain, you know, thing, right, you straighten it out and you said, well, we’re going to do this and here’s your new boundaries and now we’re going to go back later and say, oh, nope, we’re going to take that back from you. And what I would say, including, you know, the same thing with SERP, the Conference of you’re much better off working with the people who are going to be impacted and coming up with a plan that may not be the perfect plan, but it’s the plan that’s going to get you, you know, most of the way there and everybody’s going to get something out of it, then taking, or maybe never ever getting there because of litigation and other concerns. So, yeah, I want to, I want to ask about that in the, in the realm of imperfect plan surface certainly has to be at the top of the list as important as the work is, it does not look the way it did 20 years ago. What is that process like? And you might tell a little bit about how you have to adjust on the fly when you talk about things like storing an immense amount of water to make sure you’re removing nutrients and, or redirecting water to make sure it’s going to the right places. Well, yeah, I mean, there’s certainly lessons. to be learned and continue to be learned honestly that I actually am excited about being able to translate to other parts of the state because the scale, on one hand, it’s a pretty big experiment. The original stormwater treatment areas, constructed wetlands of the size that we have in the Everglades was never done before. And there was science and of course, there’s lots of opinions on, well, we should do this or we should do that until you really do it, until you construct it. and operate it and you think about what the operation and maintenance costs along with things are. And then there’s the unintended consequences of species moving in that you never thought would happen. I would say that what’s happened with the Conference of Everglades restoration plan is that while taking probably longer and being more expensive than anybody ever thought it would, I would say that we’re on a pretty good track. The amount of resources, especially lately, that have going into it. give me hope that we’re gonna get there. And it’s also taught us that we can take some of the things that we’ve learned about water and water management and hydrology and water quality treatment and transfer anywhere in the state, anywhere in the country. Yeah, I mean, and that idea on certainly on a much smaller scale is done all the time now. Right. To improve water quality. Is that… extra time and expense, how much of that is owed to federal and I’m using my quote fingers here, partners and lawsuits in that process. I mean, how much did we lose in your mind? Was that a huge factor or how much, you know, how much, yes. If you ask Henry Dean, he would say, I don’t know what, gosh, I don’t know what you guys are fighting over. It’s like, we’re trying to, we’re trying to fix something and all we’re doing is slowing ourselves down. What do you think about that? Well, it’s easy, right, to kind of point fingers. I would just say a couple things. I think that any government, you know, and the bigger the government, the more steps there are, whether it’s, you know, any federal agency has a lot of, you know, hoops they have to go through. And if anybody asks, you know, the Nature Conservancy has its own hoops that would probably, you know, quite frankly, irritate somebody who didn’t have. 50 state chapters and then was in 76 countries, right? I mean, we have legal conversations that I never ever thought the Nature Conservancy would be having. And so, and that’s because we are in different countries and you know, so there is that, there’s no doubt. And Henry and I are, I certainly, you know, even using my name in the same sentence as his, you know. Makes me feel really good. There’s no doubt that Litigation and some of these other things have just slowed things down tremendously And made it much more expensive. It sounds like in you tell me if it’s a function of your personality or just reality is You don’t with those frustrations You never struck me as someone who was to the point of say exasperation or cynicism Is that a fair description? Sure, yeah, because it’s the same thing. If I can’t help fix it, then it’s pretty much, well then why should anybody else? And I won’t pretend like there weren’t ever days of frustration where you spend a lot of time talking about, no offense to my lawyer friends, that you spend a lot of time talking about a may versus a shall. But as a whole… I think if you can get 95% there and really focus on that and not get down into, you know, and that’s not to say you can’t always do that, but holy smokes, we miss an awful lot of big opportunities because we’re, you know, we’re stuck on that, that 1%. I’ll save, I’ll save the big question relating that entire topic until later on. I want to, I want to switch now to that decision point. You talked about your conversation with Angela. 20 years is a long time. to be somewhere, you’ve gotten used to something, you’ve gotten really good at something, and something else comes along. What was the actual trigger point in your mind saying, was it just, hey, this is a great new challenge, or I believe in that mission, I wanna explore that? Yeah, let me give a little bit of backstory if I can. So, at the time, You know, I was, I was going to say knee deep, probably much deeper in the conference of Everglades restoration plan. I was working for directly in the secretary’s office representing the state on that with the army corps and department of interior and all kinds of stakeholders, you know, those meetings. And they still do probably have 20 plus entities sitting around a table. And one of those happened to be a representative from the nature conservancy, her name’s Jenny Connor. And she was the Nature Conservancy, the Florida chapter’s lobbyist, essentially. And she saw me one day and said, Hey, Greg, you know, we have a position open in Florida chapter, I think you should apply. And I said, you know, Jenny, you know, I, I’ve been with DEP 20 years. I’m really happy. I’m, you know, I’m working directly for the secretary. What else could you really add? She being a great lobbyist, which, you know, those people who are lobbyists are in are good at it, know that you don’t take no for an answer. Right. And. She kept at me and I think I actually thanked her when I got this new position as the executive director, but she wouldn’t leave it be and said, just apply. And so I applied and I, you know, they reached out for interview. And then it was kind of like, oh, this is kind of serious now. I, before it was kind of like, well, never hurts to apply, blah, blah. And so I got online and started looking at what all the nature conservancy did. Now remember this is a. a conservation organization that I had a history with here in Florida working with for many years. I kind of thought I knew what the Nature Conservancy did. I think you would find that same thing with most people that you talk to. The Nature Conservancy, they’re like, oh yeah, I know them. They buy land. I got on the website and started looking at all the things that the Nature Conservancy did and got really, really excited. Huh, maybe this would be interesting to, uh, what would that look like? Alright, let’s pause for a moment and talk about my friends at Sea and Shoreline. As we in Florida wonder what the future holds when we face the storm season ahead, Sea and Shoreline is working to protect our coastline communities against severe storms by installing a variety of green and gray infrastructure solutions to make our cities and counties more resilient. These solutions include seagrass restoration, mangroves, oyster reefs, riprap, oyster breakwaters and something called a WAD, which stands for wave attenuation device. By installing their patented WADs, Sea and Shoreline can help protect our communities against sea level rise and storm surges by defusing wave energy, stopping shoreline erosion and even rebuilding shorelines through sand accretion. To learn more about how Sea and Shoreline can protect your community, visit seaandshoreline.com. Alright, let’s get back to the conversation. What was that first job and what did you do? Well, my first job was indeed as, you know, the title was Director of Protection. And it was working with landowners and other constituents trying to protect their land through either Florida, you know, the existing land protection programs we have like Florida Forever, or the Department of Agriculture’s Rural and Family Lands program, or other programs like under the Natural Resources Conservation Service under the Department of Agriculture. So. you know, working with landowners to get their property protected. So it just kind of started there and grew as my career seems to have done. I kind of get someplace and I’m not satisfied with just the current role that I’m in and start asking questions or start saying, hey, what if we… And that’s, I think, how I ended up literally in this seat here. Nice. For folks that don’t know… And you can probably count me as one of those folks that is somewhere between don’t they buy land and, Hey, there’s some other cool things going on here. But I want to start with that land buying part. Cause I think a lot of people may not be, unless you, you know, work in some place or had a job in a water manage district or DEP or someplace like that, where you were buying land or working with trying to buy land from willing landowners, how does that work for the Nature Conservancy, talk about that process a little bit about how, because you are a lot of times the hinge point for landowners being willing to work toward protecting that property in perpetuity. Yeah, and so the Nature Conservancy as an organization started back in the mid 1950s and that’s how we came to being. We came to being in New York State actually with a group of folks who were concerned about a piece of property that was potentially going to be developed. And these are just regular people like you and me, weren’t even in the conservation world or anything else. And they actually mortgage their houses to get enough money to be able to purchase this piece of property. And so the Nature Conservancy as an organization kind of grew organically, state by state, with folks. kind of saying, hey, we could do the same thing. And then at some point they recognized that, well, if you’re gonna do this and you’re gonna get big enough to do that, we need to have some paid staff and blah, blah. And so, like I said, the Nature Conservancy in Florida was founded in the 1960s. And our primary role for many, many decades really was in the land acquisition business. We did that in multiple ways when the Florida Forever and before that, the P2000 program, we and our trustees said these are great opportunities for us to leverage public slash ad valorem and other dollars to put back into the landscape. And we can help determine where that should go. And in many cases, we can actually be the entity that brings landowners in the door. can help negotiate. Sometimes we bridge the financial gap. So we do lots of roles and we have a pretty phenomenal group of folks who are so well versed in incredibly complicated land transactions. And I’m proud to say, here in Florida, we have our actual fingerprints of the a little over 9 million acres that are in conservation, mostly public lands. We have about one point, about a 1.3 million acres have our fingerprints on them. Wow, it’s a big deal. You mentioned your trustees and you mentioned funding sources. Talk about that relationship. I had nine board members at a water management district. There are places where you have a secretary and a governor and whatnot when you’re at DP. Talk about them and talk about their relationship to the overall mission. The Nature Conservancy as an organization, we are one 501c3. So we’re kind of one nonprofit that’s governed by a board of trustees, a global board of trustees. And then underneath that, like I mentioned, we have 50 state chapters. Our trustees don’t really have a fiduciary responsibility, so to speak, but they do have an overall responsibility of making sure that we’re spending our funds wisely. I am so fortunate to have an amazing, absolutely amazing board of trustees. I have 22 trustees from all across the state, from Apalachicola all the way down to Key West of all walks of life. And I will say, because it’s such a broad group of individuals with different expertise, that’s wonderful. And as you can imagine, 22 individuals all have 22 positions and ideas and they’re all willing to give. It’s just finding out what that right space for each of them is. Nice. You mentioned, I think you talked about the difference in the approach of choosing properties to go after. When, you know, whether I was at the district or other folks, when you look at buying property, there were essentially two ways to do it, right? You either have a willing seller and so that’s place and time, you know, dependent. They say, yeah, I want to talk about that. Or people talk about. eminent domain when something is quote unquote necessary, but you’re finding this spot in the middle. Is that right? Where you’re able to go after say things that are priorities for a natural system and then go approach landowners like that? Or how do you decide the places to go after? That’s a good question. And I would say there’s more places than there is. ability, whether that’s financial ability or in the case of the Nature Conservancy, we can only be in so many places. It’s pretty cool. We get phone calls almost every day from a landowner saying, I have this piece of property that I would like to see protected. Like I said, we can only be in so many places. But the great thing is there are now here in Florida so many… smaller land trusts that have that opportunity to think very locally. And so we try to connect them with those kinds of folks. For us, it’s where do we have history? Where do we have relationships? Where do we bring value? We don’t want to just be one more voice in the room or one more entity trying to scramble for dollars. If there’s already somebody there, then we don’t need to be there. And where’s the most threat? And then probably the one where we do. The Nature Conservancy kind of has a unique niches on really big land transactions. There’ve been some recent transactions within the last few years where we’ve brought our own philanthropic dollars to the tune of over a million, million and a half of our own dollars to the table. And that’s not bragging, it’s just we’re so fortunate as a large organization to be able to, to oftentimes be able to close some of these gaps that smaller organizations just can’t do. Yeah, and it was a significant purchase. I’m a Northwest Florida guy now, I’ve had it for many, many years. Is that how you got to that Bluffs property? The Bluffs of St. Teresa, yep. Yeah, talk a little bit about the players there, just to kind of give people an idea of. the scope of the things that the Conservancy works on and how that came to fruition. Yeah, and that’s an interesting property. One of several properties that was, when St. Joe decided to divest in some of their properties, St. Joe Paper Company, there were several properties that they divested of. And we at the Nature Conservancy, even before that, had our eyes, I bet if you went back 20 years, you could find plans of ours that identified the bluffs of St. Teresa, Lake Wimico, kind of that whole panhandle coastal connectedness. So we’d been talking about this for many, many years and made multiple runs in different ways of trying to get that property. But the bluffs was available. There were Gulf oil spill funds available, but not to cover the complete purchase. And we worked with DEP. and brought some of our own money to acquire that. And again, now it’s partly DEP property that’s State Park and partly Florida State Forest. And it’s an amazing piece of property that I’m just so happy that TNC can play a role in getting that piece of property protected. And that would have been effectuated, you would have already been in more of the… government affairs, communications side of things by that point, right? Yep. Yeah, I was, you know, so for the probably past four years, I was the deputy executive director and had government relations and conservation underneath me. And so that was, again, one of those opportunities of it’s been on the list. We know that this is one of those coastal properties that honestly, you know, will rebound. and we’ll go. And so taking advantage of, like I said, working with all of the partners to, I like to use the word cobble together, the funds to make it happen, and then have someone like the state being willing to manage the property. And I’ll just tell you, I mean, we continue to work with both entities, the State Park Service, as well as the Florida Forest Service on the restoration of that piece of property. And it’s… a decade or two decades from now, it’s going to be unbelievable. And some of those, I would say normally, you’re going back to a place at DEP where you have a division of state lands and it’s like, hey, we’re gonna go back and see old friends, but those are some different faces though than when you were at DEP that do that kind of work. Is it building relationships with those folks, the people that are in charge of helping the bird dog and closed land buying deals as well that you’re… that you’re working on, talk about those relationships a little bit. Yeah, it’s interesting, like I said, being on the other side, right? So when you’re in the DEP chair in a non-profit, whoever it is, reaches out to you and says, hey, have I got a deal for you? Or I have a suggestion of what you should do. It’s a little bit different, I’ll just be honest. It’s like, okay, we’re the state of Florida, we’re the federal government, or whoever. And so… We try to be thoughtful about what it’s like to be on that side. I would hope that the Secretary, Secretary Hamilton, or any of his folks would say, the Nature Conservancy always approaches us from the standpoint of being a partner. We offer to help a lot. I hope that if they don’t want our help, they would be honest and say, hey, we don’t need your help. Because it is, as I mentioned earlier, you can get short-term gains or you can get long-term gains and the Nature Conservancy is here and has been here and it’s all about those long-term relationships. Do you have a guiding philosophy or maybe a set of principles that you rely on, whether it’s Division of State lands and partners like that or convincing legislators, the public at large, at the importance of not just a particular purchase, but the mission of Nature Conservancy as a whole. I think, and our polling has demonstrated this, not just our polling, most of the polling, right? The public, and you can use that however you want, but the public believes strongly in several things. They believe in water, right? In clean water, in abundant water, and that’s played out in Florida many, many times, many, many polls. They also believe strongly in conservation and in green space. And so, from my standpoint, called a philosophy or a tenet, first you gotta be willing to have the honest conversations. And once you kinda can get to that point of, well what is it that we’re trying to accomplish and why do we think it’s important? then I think you can actually start having the conversation of how do you do it, right? And it all goes back to your earlier question, Brett, of if you just assume that everybody needs to think the way that you do, whether you’re a small county who’s trying to grow your tax base, for me to drop in there and say, oh, you guys should do X, and you shouldn’t want to be like some other county. So my point is you really… For me and the Nature Conservancy, I mean, we are a nonpartisan group. We’re non-confrontational. And so we know that the way to do these things is with partners. And those partners include everybody from, you know, the legislature to state governments, to landowners, to others in the conservation world, because that’s the only way we’re going to get it done. So take me from the silo of that mission, because it’s more than just that. at the conservancy, but take me to the outside of the silo into the larger realm of restoring natural systems writ large. And the one that comes to my mind most immediately, because in the news quite a bit, is Indian River Lagoon. If my old friend Paul Thorpe at the Northwest Florida Water Management District hears this, and I hope he does because his face will melt off, for me it’s always been fix the problem at hand. And so he and I would always have these, you know, these discussions, sometimes spirited, sometimes not about what, you know, what to do first, you know, do we deal with a stormwater runoff and septic tanks and advanced treatment of wastewater treatment facilities, or do we, do we buy land and it took him a while, you know, over the years and I’m a bit stubborn. And so for me, it was like, Hey, maybe it’s both. Is that, is that the approach that the conservancy takes to things like that? Or is it really, how can you fit in that less broad mission into a broader mission? Or do you do the whole thing? Good question. And I would say we sometimes still struggle with, what’s that balance? I mentioned we were, and we started in the land acquisition business and then we recognized that just buying land and not doing land management on it was important. So we kind of expanded to a land management and we have a, you know, an amazing prescribed fire crew, and we train, you know, folks on prescribed fire and invasive exotic removal. You know, and then we started looking around and saying, okay, that’s great, you know, for the uplands, but now what other problems exist? And we’ve done coral restoration in the Keys. And, you know, part of that was, as I mentioned, looking around and saying, well, where isn’t there somebody and can we, or is there a philanthropic? opportunity there to kind of try something. And so, you know, we’ve kind of continued to do that. We do freshwater work and we do climate work and we do marine work and, you know, of course, do land work. You know, sometimes it can seem like we’re trying to do everything, but we try to be focused on where can we bring value. And, you know, I would argue that the Indian River Lagoon is one of those places where we think we can bring value and focus, and there’s lots of opportunity there. And I do think it’s both. I mean, I don’t think you can just say, oh, well, we’re just gonna deal with septic tanks and we’re not gonna deal with stormwater. I wanna talk a little bit more about that, but I wanna pause to give credit to or point out one of those things that you talked about, you talk about land management. And from my perspective, we deal with, you know, 200 at the water management district when I was still there, 225,000 acres of natural area, most of it around water, but some of it in Upland. And the Nature Conservancy is considered very well respected, part of broader teams that include both government and non-governmental entities, but you’re the major non-governmental entity doing the, whether it be the day-to-day activities, but also those more difficult tasks of prescribed fire and things like that. Is that something that the Conservancy takes a great deal of pride in or effort? Was it, was it by design or is it, Hey, we ended up being good at this. I don’t really know the history from the standpoint of, I think a lot of it was, as being a big landowner ourselves, so in Florida, we own over 40,000 acres ourselves, right? So when you own it, you also have to end up figuring out how to manage it. And fortunately, we do have the resources and ability to kind of start figuring some of this stuff out. And as an example, the- goes kind of hand in hand with the prescribed fire, certainly here in Florida, is our longleaf pine restoration that we work with the district on as well. And in addition to, I mean, I think many of us figured out how to plant longleaf pine trees, but then it became the, okay, well that’s not really necessarily the system we’re trying to restore. We’re trying to actually restore the system, right? Which includes ground cover and native grasses and… And how do we do that? And we have, again, the Nature Conservancy, because our donors honestly trust us to make good decisions with their money. And we think very, I mean, that’s a pretty big tenet for me is to make sure we’re spending it wisely. So we can think about how can we, and I would say we’re innovators in that way, and we have been innovators on ground cover restoration in longleaf pine. And now we have to figure out how do we scale those things up? Much, much broader. Yeah, and it doesn’t stop there, right? You mentioned, and I didn’t know about the coral reef before, what I do know about is going beyond the grasses, the trees, into the actual things that inhabit those places, right? And at least in Northwest Florida, that includes gopher tortoises. That includes the indigo snake, which had almost completely disappeared from North Florida. How is that going, the indigo snake? I think we’re on year, so we’re working with other groups. We’re not growing the snakes, but there’s a group that actually grows the snakes up, along with other researchers and of course FWC and the Fish and Wildlife Service, because they’re endangered and super wonderful snakes. And so we volunteered at our Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines property. to be essentially a site that we could do releases and also some of those snakes or actually have a transmitter. So we can start learning, what is their range? How many of them are being successful? I think with this, we actually just did a release about a month ago, you can find it on the website, that was the seventh year in North Florida that we’ve released indigo snakes with the hope of, again, rebuilding that population. What I tell my, especially my, my marketing folks is that’s all part of this wildlife corridor story. It’s not just this and what Carlton and Mallory and others have done, you know, for recognizing that, you know, the, the need for a corridor is amazing. And you’ve got to be able to tell those stories like the indigo snake of, you know, that’s why we need it. Yeah. And there’s a lot to that subject. There’s a lot of push now folks like Wilton Simpson, who was the the state’s ag commissioner for those wildlife corridors that includes not just wild places like the conservancy land or water management land, but, but agricultural land, right? How, how involved is the conservancy in helping to pull all of those things together to, to help form that corridor? I would say we’re one of many partners, obviously, working with President Pasadomo and Speaker Renner and what they have done, again, in their first term here has been amazing, supporting land acquisition programs. They recognize, again, that the agricultural community is a key to recognizing… or realizing maybe I should say that the Florida Wildlife Corps or the only way it’s going to happen is by protecting. And again, when I say protection, it doesn’t necessarily mean that us buying, it may mean easements. It may mean something completely new that we haven’t thought about, but how do we keep those agricultural lands in agriculture? And as you mentioned, the commissioner is key to that as well. Jumping back to Indian River Lagoon, I don’t want to leave it unsaid because significant legislation has been passed. House Bill 1379 that deals in a broad range of subjects, but I think the central theme there is the Indian River Lagoon restoration program. Are you satisfied with the end result of that product? Do you think there’s something missing there that you still want to work on? Well, what I would say is there’s something that we are working on and, you know, I think it’s, it’s probably, you know, the funding and there’s lots of plans, right? I mean, there’s, there’s multiple plans. They’re good plans. Certainly we, I’m gonna use the we as the collective we recognize that, you know, septic tanks all across Florida, you know, are an issue in, in places, especially close to. to water bodies. The one thing that we’ve been thinking a lot about, and I am pretty excited that we’re gonna be able to help happen is looking at stormwater, which really hasn’t, the actual stormwater treatment side of things hasn’t really changed in decades, right? I mean, it’s, you build a pond, you collect X amount of water, and you put in a fixed crest weir, and when it fills up enough that it spills over, then it discharges, and then the next storm comes. Well, we’ve been working with some folks on changing or at least evaluating, I will say changing because the technology is demonstrated and we’ve done this, the Nature Conservancy has done this in a few places across the country including in the Chesapeake and changing from this passive kinds of stormwater treatment to an active stormwater treatment and what I’ve kind of the way I’ve explained it to lay folks is. We have so many smart technologies now, like your thermostat now can tell you, not only does it tell when you’re home, but it actually can tell, oh, if you change the thermostat X number of times, it starts figuring out what your comfort zones are. We have all of these other technologies. In this essentially, in a very simplistic way, instead of just accepting that we’re going to have a stagnant pond, can look at weather. and determine, oh, it’s gonna rain, and I am gonna likely need capacity, I can go ahead and discharge some very, very clean water and not let it mix with water that’s gonna be newer water and discharge it and actually free up more capacity, right? And so it’s pretty, it’s wonderful. And why I’m excited about it is all across the state, we have these places that are, there’s not much opportunity because they’re They’re fairly built out. So what are we gonna do? I mean, if we wanna get nutrient removal out of these places, we’re gonna have to think new. And this is one of those ways of doing that. And so we have some potential for some philanthropic dollars to demonstrate and work with some local governments on retrofitting some existing stormwater ponds. And then my ultimate hope here is that once we demonstrate and show people that this is a technology that… It’s demonstrated now it’s just how do we get it to go? We like to use the word viral, but you know, essentially there’s no doubt in my mind, we’re going to see active stormwater management across the state of Florida. And it’s going to provide lots of benefits, but I think the Indian river Lagoon is the first place we’re going to focus. Sure. Yeah. I think a lot of exciting things to come there. I’m going to run you through, I’ve kept you a while, but I want to get my, my usual questions in. So. You’ll have to bear with me. Let’s start with one that’s a weird question to ask, but I always phrase it this way and then rephrase it differently. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? It doesn’t have to be a thing itself. It can be your impact on someone else, something else’s impact on you and how, how you operate anything in that, in that realm. Wow. That’s a, that’s a good question. You know, I, I would say, and it’s, you know, sometimes you lose sight of those things, but The Everglades, and I’m going to focus specifically on the stormwater treatment areas because there was really not much known about them. The fact that we went from one test, the STA-1Es, to the rest. Now we’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of stormwater treatment areas. That was a pretty big deal. In figuring out water quality treatment and what it looked like and all of that. and working with my colleagues at DEP during the time was pretty cool. When it came to your time in government at DEP, was there something there? We all make decisions and you were there for 20 years. You moved to TNC doing great things there. Was there something there though that you felt maybe was undone or hey, it would have been nice to have seen that finish? Was it the Everglades? I would never say that because you know, that’s just… I would like to see it done in my lifetime, but that’s such a big thing that I don’t know about that. I would say that just a recognition that water, and maybe what I would say is really bringing a, and it’s much easier said than done, this kind of comprehensive view of, and I’m only focused on water since this is a water. podcast. Even at DEP, while they all kind of talk to one another, I would still say it was siloed then and it’s still kind of siloed. And so how do you get to that, to your point, Brett, if we’re talking about Indian River Lagoon, how do you get all of the folks, whether it’s the funding folks and the regulatory folks, and all kind of together and say… What’s the one thing that we, if we all kind of row in the same direction, we can all get done instead of saying, oh, well, no, that’s your program. Your words to God’s ears there. Are you optimistic about the future of the environment in Florida and why? Oh, yeah. I mean, most definitely. That’s the only, I mean, I couldn’t get up every morning if I, if I wasn’t optimistic, you know, where there’ll be changes. Yeah. Will it all be the way I want it? Definitely not. But I do believe, and I’ll continue to say this, that at the heart of it, people care. And I think if we can figure out a way to capture, and this is just a side note that one day, on one of your future podcasts, you can ask folks to come talk more about this. But if we can really capture all of the benefits that our natural systems provide. then we’ll be much further along, right? Instead of whether it’s just aesthetics, it doesn’t matter whether you like critters or you don’t like critters or whatever, that our natural lands, not just lands, natural landscapes are providing all kinds of benefits to all of us, and so my optimism is we’ll recognize all of that and that will, that’ll move us much further along. What keeps you up at night? regarding the environment. Is there something that’s like, gosh, I don’t know how we’re going to fix this. I don’t know that actually what keeps me awake at night, especially being new in this position, maybe it’s going to sound corny, is not wanting to disappoint both my spouse, of course, and those people who got me to where I am, right? All of those leaders, including you and others who I have tremendous respect for, my staff, you know, my board of trustees. You know, to me, that’s what keeps me awake at night is, you know, I have a lot of smart people that I rely on and that, you know, advise me. And so to me, I’m not worried about whether we can do it or not. I’m just worried about whether I can help them and enable them to do it. I don’t think that’s corny at all, man. What advice would you give to young people who are either entering or maybe interested in entering, whether it be public service in the environmental field or the environment? from an NGO standpoint, what would you tell them? So what I would say, again, I’m only going to talk about TNC, would be do it. There is, again, I recognize I’m biased, but as an organization, I mean from the top, Jen Morris, our CEO, all the way down to the land steward who’s got the drip torch and his lighting prescribed fires, the passion and commitment is absolutely unbelievable. And it’s not just Florida. I meet people from all over the globe, and that commitment is to a person. And they’re your friend right off the bat. And so what I would suggest is if you’re interested, find somebody, ask them, get involved, volunteer, figure out how to do it. And then on the public side, I would, the same thing, say that we need people who are passionate. not necessarily looking to, you know, to, to get wealthy because you’re not going to do that anywhere. And, you know, in the public sector, if you want to help make a difference, you know, you can, and it just requires, you know, working hard. I think that’s a perfect place to end. Greg connect. Thank you so much for being here, man. Enjoy it. Thank you. Yeah. Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening to water for fighting. This podcast has been brought to you by rez can see in shoreline. Don’t forget to check the episode notes to visit their websites and learn more about how they can help you. If you’re enjoying the show, please be sure to subscribe on whatever platform you use and don’t forget to leave a 5-star rating and review. You can follow the show on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, probably even Twitter at FLWaterpod and you can reach me directly at FLWaterpod at gmail.com with your comments and suggestions for who and or what you’d like to know more about. Production of this podcast is by Lonely Fox Studios. Thanks to Carl Sworn for making the best of what he had to work with and to Dave Barfield for the amazing graphics and technical assistance. A very special thank you goes out to Bo Spring from the Bo Spring Band for giving permission to use his music for the podcast. The song is called Doin’ Work for Free and you should check out the band live or wherever great music is sold. Join me next time for another amazing conversation with someone who has helped shape water and environmental policy in the Sunshine State. Until then, keep your whiskey close and your water closer.

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