The Nonprofit at the Heart of a Collision of Science, Politics, Business, and Big Philanthropy
The Everglades Foundation has been at the forefront of restoring the Florida wetlands for 30 years. Not everyone is on board with its environmental plans.
Last February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on a massive reservoir project that’s intended to cleanse water and help restore the Florida Everglades’ natural flow.
At the groundbreaking, lawmakers and leaders from government agencies posed for photos, scooping earth with golden shovels. Standing beside them was Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation and a veteran Republican political strategist and lobbyist.
For the past 30 years, the Everglades Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to shape the restoration of the
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Last February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on a massive reservoir project that’s intended to cleanse water and help restore the Florida Everglades’ natural flow.
At the groundbreaking, lawmakers and leaders from government agencies posed for photos, scooping earth with golden shovels.
Standing beside them was Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation and a veteran Republican political strategist and lobbyist. For the past 30 years, the Everglades Foundation has been at the forefront of efforts to shape the restoration of the wetland ecosystem, which spans 1.5 million acres across central and south Florida and provides drinking water for 9 million residents of the Sunshine State. It’s been instrumental in pushing forward the $4 billion Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, which officials like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hail as “the crown jewel of Everglades restoration.”
“The Everglades Foundation is the mother and father of the reservoir,” said Estus Whitfield, who served as environmental adviser to four Florida governors and worked as an environmental consultant after his retirement from state government in 1999. He says he doesn’t think the reservoir would have moved forward without the nonprofit’s clout.
The evolution of the Everglades’ biggest environmental project in one of the country’s most climate-imperiled states has been controversial. The Everglades Foundation and its allied organizations view the effort, which includes both the water storage reservoir and engineered marshes to cleanse water, as a critical step toward fixing decades of problems.
But some environmental advocates argue that the multibillion-dollar project is flawed and have criticized the Everglades Foundation for compromising environmental needs for political and business interests. They argue the reservoir’s scaled-back design — the result of a deal with the powerful sugar industry, which owns much of the land south of Lake Okeechobee and generates an estimated $4.7 billion annually to the state’s economy — may not succeed in improving water quality unless additional land is acquired to create more wetlands where cattails and other plants can help remove pollution.
More From Eden Stiffman
Future of Food
In addition, some environmental groups say the power the Everglades Foundation exerts through its funding of other environmental nonprofits has stifled dissent. Further, they fear that a lawsuit the Everglades Foundation filed in April 2022 against its former chief scientist, a leading Everglades hydrologist and critic of the reservoir design, has cast a shadow over the watershed restoration.
It’s too soon to know the outcome of the $4 billion reservoir, which is expected to be completed by 2030 and is just one piece of a broader restoration project. But as construction progresses and the Everglades Foundation raises tens of millions for an endowment to cement its continued influence in the region’s future, it offers a case study of the tensions among politics, science, and business interests and the power of big-donor philanthropy to shape environmental agendas.
Wealthy Fishing Buddies Found Nonprofit
The Everglades Foundation was founded in 1993 by billionaire Wall Street investor Paul Tudor Jones and the late Orlando developer George Barley, to stem the environmental decline of the Everglades.
Jones, a prolific philanthropist, had previously co-founded Robin Hood Foundation, the New York anti-poverty group. The men owned neighboring homes in the Florida Keys village of Islamorada and enjoyed fishing together for tarpon. They established the nonprofit when a seagrass die-off threatened their beloved fishing spot. After Barley’s death in a small plane crash in 1995, his widow, Mary Barley, joined Jones as a primary funder of the Palmetto Bay-based organization.
The Everglades stretch from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River near Orlando through shallow Lake Okeechobee and into the Florida Bay at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The complex and fragile water system is deeply imperiled. Pollution, invasive species, population pressure, and climate change all threaten the ecosystem. To make way for agriculture and development, the wetland has also been ditched, drained, and diverted by human engineering for more than a century. These efforts have shrunk the watershed, restricted when and where water can flow, and resulted in blooms of toxic algae and red tides.
There are no easy solutions to the problems facing the “River of Grass.” The stakes are high for the state’s $125 billion tourist economy and for the 8 million Floridians who rely on the watershed as their source of drinking water, as well as the diverse species of birds, reptiles, and mammals that call its freshwater sawgrass meadows, cypress swamps, and mangrove forests home.
The Everglades Foundation has grown in tandem with the area’s environmental challenges. Over the past three decades, the organization has become the best-financed environmental group in the region, reporting more than $28 million in revenue on its most recent informational tax form. That’s largely thanks to a base of wealthy donors and a board stacked with business leaders and celebrities, such as Marshall Field V, a member of the Chicago family that founded the department store chain of the same name, and golfer Jack Nicklaus. Singer Jimmy Buffett joined the board in 2005 and remained active until a few months before his death last year.
“They’ve been enormously influential,” said Amy Green, an environmental journalist and the author of the 2021 book Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar, which follows the recent Everglades restoration through the story of George Mary Barley.
The Everglades Foundation has “this ability to keep the same company as wealthy, influential people in Florida and also politicians,” she said. “They were able to cultivate those financial and those political connections for the benefit of the Everglades.”
The organization’s staff of 40 carry out scientific research, advocacy, and education. In addition to supporting its own team of scientists, the group provides research grants and fellowships to educational institutions including Florida International University and the University of Florida. It also gives to other environmental groups working in the Everglades — money that some former grantees allege comes with expectations for policy positions.
Eric Eikenberg became CEO of Everglades Foundation in 2012. He brought experience and connections in both Tallahassee and Washington after having spent several years as chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (then a Republican) and former Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw Jr. Before Eikenberg’s tenure, Shaw drafted the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, legislation that was signed into law in 2000 by President Bill Clinton and laid out an extensive federal and state effort to restore and protect the wetlands. Even with that plan in place, progress was slow.
Initial projections estimated the plan’s 68 projects would cost $8.2 billion and be completed within 30 years. But the scope, cost, and timeline have since ballooned. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated it could cost upwards of $23 billion to implement the plan’s dozens of projects by 2050.
With the help of its lobbying arm, the Everglades Trust, and other aligned groups, the Everglades Foundation’s leaders and advocacy team have helped secure billions in federal and state funding for Everglades restoration projects since its founding.
When Eikenberg took the CEO role, the Everglades Foundation had 15 staff members and a $4.5 million annual budget. In 2013, about a year into the job, the state was hit with what’s been called “the lost summer.” Heavy rainfall prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open floodgates on the west and east sides of Lake Okeechobee. As water contaminated with phosphorus-rich agricultural runoff and other waste flowed into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, it caused an outbreak of foul-smelling and harmful blue-green algae, killing fish and causing tourism to plummet.
Eikenberg recalled standing in a marina in Stuart, north of Palm Beach, around the July 4 holiday when the St. Lucie River should have been full of boaters. The normally clear water looked like old guacamole, and there was not a single boat in sight.
“It was like a ghost town,” Eikenberg said. “That was the moment when the foundation began to look internally to say something has to change.”
In 2016, following yet another climate catastrophe — a massive die-off of sawgrass in Florida Bay — the Everglades Foundation joined with groups like the Audubon Society and began to rally both the environmental and business communities, launching a campaign calling for the construction of the massive reservoir and artificial wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee.
As the Everglades Foundation’s work kicked into high gear, a growing group of high-profile donors provided financial backing at events like the annual gala at the ritzy Breakers resort in Palm Beach. The nonprofit has also attracted support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and corporations, though individual donors make up the lion’s share of its revenue.
Sugar and Water
Initially, the reservoir was envisioned to be built on 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee, which included a large swath of land owned by the big sugar-growing companies. (About a quarter of all U.S.-produced sugar is grown in the Everglades Agricultural Area.)
In 2008, Florida’s then Governor Charlie Crist announced that the state was going to buy out one of those companies — U.S. Sugar — for $1.75 billion to build reservoirs and water treatment systems on its land. The Everglades Foundation was significantly involved in that deal. But as the Great Recession deepened and negotiations continued, the scope of land acquisition was repeatedly downsized.
While additional land could still be acquired, the 23-foot-deep reservoir currently under construction is about two-thirds the area and four times as deep as initially proposed. That concerns scientists like wetlands ecologist William Mitsch, whose research says the reservoir and stormwater treatment marshes will be too small to improve water quality.
The Everglades Foundation once opposed the reduced reservoir design but in 2017 changed its tune, even as its own chief scientist pushed back.
Republican Florida Senate President Joe Negron, whose district included the state’s East Coast communities especially affected by polluted water, had made the reservoir a top priority. But that year, facing pressure from sugar companies, he introduced a revised plan that removed the state’s ability to acquire more land using eminent domain.
“It was either use state land that was leased to Big Sugar or not have a project."
“It was either use state land that was leased to Big Sugar or not have a project,” Eikenberg said. “We were not going to settle for less than nothing, and there’s a lot of environmental groups, unfortunately, that would rather have the perfect instead of the good.”
The Sierra Club, for example, has been blunt about its assessment of the reservoir project.
In a February 2022 letter to President Biden, following his administration’s investment in the Army Corp’s budget, the group’s Florida chapter described the project as a short-term Band-Aid that gives politicians environmental credibility. “This reservoir will not provide the level of ecological restoration benefits South Florida needs but rather has become a go-to project for greenwashing by Governor Ron DeSantis and others looking for a quick political, rather than ecological, fix,” they wrote.
But Eikenberg said compromise was required to get the project off the block. “Unless you can effectively maneuver through the political science and work that side of the equation,” he says, “this is not cut and dry.”
Eikenberg said a 2018 order signed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection provides enough assurance that water would not be released from the reservoir into the Everglades unless water-quality standards are met. The order leaves the door open to convert more land into a water-treatment marsh if needed.
Several environmental reviews suggest that may be required if the project is to succeed. In an environmental impact report released in May 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers signaled its own worries about whether the finished project can meet water-quality standards. Last December, the National Academy of Sciences put out its biennial report on the Everglades, which echoed those concerns.
Organizations aligned with the Everglades Foundation view the project as a step in the right direction.
“Is it going to be the silver bullet that solves all of our problems? No. Is it an essential piece of the puzzle without which we’re not going to be able to accomplish our goals? Absolutely,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.
The Everglades Foundation has been a longtime supporter of Audubon Florida and other environmental groups in the region, most of which are a part of the Everglades Coalition, an alliance of around 60 nonprofits.
From 2018 through 2021, Audubon Florida received more than $1 million in grants from the Everglades Foundation. That represents about 2.8 percent of its $41.6 million in total revenue during those years, according to Wraithmell.
Other nonprofits that have been supportive of the reservoir include the Florida Oceanographic Society, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and Captains for Clean Water — all of which received grants from the Everglades Foundation.
“The foundation is very good about recognizing the groups that they fund bring lots of different perspectives and talents and insights,” Wraithmell said. “We certainly have situations where we disagree on strategy.”
But some claim the Everglades Foundation’s generous support can also put them in a bind.
“The threat of losing funding keeps people from speaking honestly or clearly,” said Cris Costello, senior organizing manager of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter.
Her group was generally on the same page as the Everglades Foundation — and received funding for years — until a disagreement over how to spend billions of voter-approved land-conservation dollars in 2014, she says. The Everglades Foundation wanted to use those dollars for construction of the reservoir, while the Sierra Club wanted to see the state acquire more land. The Sierra Club last received a grant from the foundation, for $120,000, in 2018.
“Do we agree to lose that money or do we decide to do what the foundation says so we can keep our staff?” she said. “Those are the kinds of decisions that organizations have to make.”
Eikenberg said his group’s decision to stop supporting the Sierra Club predated any disagreement over the reservoir project and had to do with its differing approach to political influence in the state capital of Tallahassee. Sierra Club’s advocacy focus is on building grassroots support, while the Everglades Foundation is more “grasstops,” he said, focused on building relationships with lobbyists and policymakers.
“That’s part of what the struggle has been in the Everglades,” said Alan Farago, a writer critical of the Everglades Foundation’s approach who serves as conservation chair of the Board of Trustees at the nonprofit Friends of the Everglades, which also works to protect the wetland. “Whose voice do you listen to? The foundation has become incredibly influential in that and the outcomes are very uncertain.”
Over nearly two years, the Everglades Foundation has been embroiled in a legal battle against Tom Van Lent, its longtime chief scientist, who had voiced opposition to the modified reservoir project and sparred with Eikenberg.
In a May court hearing, the Everglades Foundation’s chief finance and operations officer, Coreen Rodgers, testified that in a meeting Van Lent was “slamming his hands on the table and screaming” at Eikenberg to the point where the CEO “felt like he could be assaulted at any time.” In 2020, Van Lent moved into a staff position without leadership responsibilities. According to court records, that change happened “after Mr. Eikenberg no longer felt he could trust Dr. Van Lent to speak on behalf of the Foundation.”
After nearly 17 years on staff, Van Lent resigned in 2022. He soon went to work as a science adviser for the much smaller nonprofit Friends of the Everglades, which was founded by environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969. That organization, he said in a Tweet, “put facts over politics.” A handful of other scientists left the Everglades Foundation in 2021 and 2022.
The Everglades Foundation’s lawsuit claimed Van Lent stole “trade secrets” and deleted files when he left the organization. In May 2023, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge found him guilty of indirect criminal contempt for not following a September 2022 court order to stop downloading and deleting data from his computer, hard drives, and other devices related to his work at the Everglades Foundation. Van Lent denies stealing classified materials and said he deleted only duplicate and personal documents that he was not aware were covered by the court order.
In late December, the judge sentenced him to 10 days behind bars. Earlier this year, Van Lent, who has since filed for bankruptcy, was also ordered to pay the Everglades Foundation’s $177,720 in legal fees.
While the litigation coincided with the reservoir project development, the Everglades Foundation has maintained the two are not linked. Eikenberg said the lawsuit is simply an employee-employer dispute “about the theft of proprietary data.” He added that support for his group is growing.
“We have chambers of commerce, we have realtors, we have business leaders across Florida who are joining with us to make sure that decision makers know that you have to build these infrastructure projects,” he says. “There’s so much at stake.”
But others, like Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment who has studied species extinction in the Everglades, say the litigation has tarnished the Everglades Foundation’s credibility.
“The foundation lobbied hard for a particular project, and I think it’s clear that their scientist, and arguably the best hydrologist in the Everglades system, has told them it’s not a good idea,” says Pimm, who served as a character witness in Van Lent’s sentencing hearing. “They seem to have taken a path of trying to silence and intimidate Tom.”
The Known Unknowns
In late 2023, the Everglades Foundation launched an endowment campaign to protect the watershed for decades to come. Donors like Jo Ann Taylor Kindle, an heir to the Enterprise rental car family, and Florida businessman Carlos de la Cruz Jr., the nonprofit’s board chair, have already contributed or pledged more than $59 million toward the $75 million goal.
“We’re always going to face threats to this ecosystem,” says Eikenberg. “The development challenge will always be there. The agricultural pressures that continue to this day will be there. But at the end of the day, all of this has to coexist.”
Over the next decade, as the Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District continue construction, the Everglades Foundation will provide research and advocacy that inform how the region’s reservoirs are operated after the billions of government dollars are spent.
The Everglades Foundation is one of many groups with which the Corps will coordinate, says Eva Velez, chief of the ecosystem branch of the U.S. Corps’ Jacksonville District.
But as the nonprofit cheers on the dollars funding the reservoir, Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, asks to what end.
“If these projects don’t work, billions of dollars for Everglades restoration is not going to solve the problem for the next generation,” she says. “The money is flowing, but that doesn’t mean the problems are solved.”
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.