Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a professional conservationist, has dedicated his career to protecting the Sunshine State’s unique wildlife. Having grown up during Florida’s environmental discovery period, Draper’s early life consisted of innocently wandering the state’s forests, as well as adventurously canoeing through the Hillsborough River near Tampa. His career aspirations developed during his participation in a political campaign aided by environmental groups. Today, Draper works diligently to protect and preserve Florida’s natural landscape.
Draper is fluent in Floridian. When asked about Florida’s uniqueness in relation to his position, he expresses his reverence for the Sunshine State. “Florida is the most beautiful place in the country. I just love the state of Florida and I love every part of it.” Draper continues his expression of admiration by raving on the state’s diverse fauna. “We have such amazing wildlife from the Florida panthers to our bird life and reptiles, alligators and crocodiles. There’s always something to see and always something to get excited about.”
Draper’s favorite animals are the reddish egret, a coastal heron bird, and the swallow-tailed kite, a pernine raptor. He describes the reddish egret as a “[…] bird that has the funny behavior of dancing while it’s fishing.” On the other hand, the swallow-tailed kite “[…] is always a harbinger of spring and one of those birds that, when you see it soaring in the sky or ducking around and catching dragonflies, you gotta say, ‘Oh, it’s a good day because I saw a swallow-tailed kite.’”
Animals mentioned in this episode:

         Swallow-tailed Kite (credit James Gray)

       Reddish Egret (credit Dave Fox)



Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode, brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon Florida. In our conversation we talk about how Eric developed his passion for the environment and wildlife and what environmental issues he thinks are most important to Florida right now. We also talk about Audubon, [00:00:30] Florida’s Everglades conservation efforts and the significance of clean water to our state. Eric even reveals his favorite animal, and you can hear it all right now.


Loving nature and seeing the beauty of our environment is something that even children can do, and they often do it better than adults. Were you just as passionate about nature when you were a child as you are now?


Eric Draper: Chris, I am as passionate now as I was as a child. I was as passionate then. I remember [00:01:00] wandering in the woods as a kid and just being the happiest in those days. In high school taking the canoe out on the Hillsborough River near Tampa. Same thing in college. I have a job now that allows me to travel all over the state of Florida and I’m always happiest outdoors, seeing wildlife and seeing new places.


Chris Cate: Were you a Boy Scout, or did you have people in your life who you looked up to, perhaps even on TV or in books, that taught [00:01:30] you very early on about the importance of conservation efforts?


Eric Draper: I was not a Scout, but I became interested very early and I’ve lived near the river and it just gave me an opportunity to see birds. I’ve always loved to swim. I consider it a rite of passage to be able to swim. I came of age when Florida was going through its environmental discovery period, when we had great leaders who were making [00:02:00] water an important goal. The skies in Tampa at that time were clouded with brown pollution from the coal-fired power plants and I think that I became infected with the bug at Earth Day of really not just wanting to enjoy nature but to be part of doing something about it.


I had the opportunity to work for a legislator who ran for Congress. When he ran for Congress, and I ran his campaign, he [00:02:30] talked a lot about the environment. The environmental groups helped us. We lost the campaign, unfortunately, but I said, “That’s what I wanna do for a career. I wanna be an environmental advocate.” I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make a good living at it and make it a career.


Chris Cate: What makes Florida a unique place to be the executive director of an Audubon organization?


Eric Draper: Well, Florida is the most beautiful place in the country. I just love the state of Florida [00:03:00] and I love every part of it. I am a bicyclist and sometimes I ride my bike up into Georgia and it’s almost like when I cross the border, it’s like, “Oh, this is weird. This is Georgia. It’s not Florida.” I just feel that strongly about the place. In the Florida Keys and seeing the amazing beauty of tropical hammocks and the Atlantic and the Florida Bay or whether I’m in the Everglades. The other day I was on the St. Lucie River [00:03:30] birdwatching. If I’m in the pine forest, if I’m in a spring, I just love every part of it.


The great thing about Florida’s environment is that there are so many different parts. It’s just diversity. We have such amazing wildlife from the Florida panthers to our bird life and reptiles, alligators and crocodiles. There’s always something to see and always something to get excited about.


Chris Cate: Yeah. I would think that [00:04:00] because there are so many needs as it relates to Florida’s environment and wildlife that it would be very hard to pick and choose what issues you should be the most vocal about. How do you go about deciding which issues deserve the most attention?


Eric Draper: Well, Chris, as you can tell from this conversation already, I am most passionate about water. I am just distressed by the neglect that our state leaders have shown toward both our water supply and toward water quality. [00:04:30] Again, growing up in Florida, I thought that it was just a right of citizenship to be able to go and swim in a river or go swim in a lake. There are very few places now where you can swim, other than the ocean, that you don’t have to worry about getting sick. I have a couple hidden places, I call them my favorite swimming holes, that I still go to. But that’s really affected me. When you stand next to a Florida spring and you see how the flow [00:05:00] has been reduced so much or you see algae in the spring or, as I did last year, when they had the horrible toxic algae on the coastal areas, to stand next to that and to see it and smell it and to know what it’s supposed to be like, it just really pushes my buttons in a hard way.


Every day I’m involved with discussions with political leaders and business leaders and others about, “Why can’t we put our minds together and do [00:05:30] something about this?” It’s an easy pick for me. It’s water.


Chris Cate: What do you think is really standing in the way of more Floridians and leaders in the state taking action to improve the water situation in Florida?


Eric Draper: You know, the state politics have been worked into this crazy set of talking points, which is less government, lower taxes. It just can’t work that way if we want to have a healthy [00:06:00] environment. We have to spend money, we actually have to regulate the pollution sources. We have to regulate the way that people use water. But we have leaders both in the House and the Senate that may give lip service to being for the environment and the politicians say, “Oh, I love to fish” or “I love to take my kids out in nature.” But they’re actually compounding our problem with every day that we delay and we get more [00:06:30] and more nutrient pollution accumulating in the state of Florida and we allow more and more water to be permitted to people for too much use.


I would say that the biggest problem is neglect. It’s neglect that’s justified under a weird ideological framework that is just counter to what we need to do to protect our environment.


Chris Cate: How would you rate the current Everglades Restoration effort? Is there a positive momentum for the effort [00:07:00] right now or would you say that our time to save the Everglades is really slipping away from us?


Eric Draper: Everglades Restoration has been a great joy. Of course, that’s the biggest water issue in the state and I’m glad to have been part of it for probably more than 25 years. We’ve made great progress on Everglades Restoration. There are places you can go to right now where you can see the benefits of Restoration, more fresh water flowing into marshes, more bird life. But it’s not happening everywhere. [00:07:30] There’s been significant progress, but it has not been nearly as fast as we would have wanted it to be. Again, the legislature has decided to postpone rather than address directly some of the water quality problems that we’re seeing in the Everglades. We have a long ways to go.


Again, there’s a price tag on it. It’s gonna take billions and billions of dollars to finish Everglades Restoration and even as we’re dealing with that, we need to deal with our springs, [00:08:00] we need to deal with our coastal estuaries, and other places that are suffering similar types of problems.


Chris Cate: How active are private corporations and companies involved in those efforts? Is it really a state legislative issue or is there a strong effort among the private sector to get involved in the effort, as well?


Eric Draper: One of the things that’s encouraging about Everglades Restoration and water in general is we actually [00:08:30] are seeing businesses step up and say, “Hey, we need to do something about this.” I was just on the phone this morning with somebody from Guy Harvey. We have had some partnerships recently with the Bass Pro Shops, Johnny Morris. Even the Orvis company. You’re seeing businesses step forward and saying, “Wait a minute, fishing and boating and our coastal ecosystems are very important to us.” There are companies, [00:09:00] I think, that are doing a good job of addressing environmental issues in the state of Florida. Disney certainly is in that category. We’ve been doing a lot of work with Darden Restaurants recently, which has got a whole program to make sure that their food and restaurant business is as sustainable as possible.


Chris Cate: When it comes to wildlife in Florida, do you have a favorite animal that you are passionate about protecting?


Eric Draper: Well, yes, I do. But there’s competition for that. The competition is between the reddish [00:09:30] egret, which is a coastal heron. Beautiful bird that has the funny behavior of dancing while it’s fishing. It dances to stir up the fish. Then it competes, in my mind, with the swallow-tailed kite, which is always a harbinger of spring and one of those birds that, when you see it soaring in the sky or ducking around and catching dragonflies, you gotta say, “Oh, it’s a good day because I saw a swallow-tailed kite.”


Chris Cate: Now I have to [00:10:00] find pictures of those birds so I can put them on the website. I can’t picture them so I’ll have to look them up. Transitioning a little bit more nationally, how is the Trump presidency impacting your efforts?


Eric Draper: We’re very worried about what might happen with the federal government under Trump. It comes to the same two issues, [00:10:30] which is if you’re gonna argue for a smaller government, less regulations, less money, then that’s gonna impact environmental programs. It’s going to create a threat on our National Parks Wildlife Refuges. There will be a problem with making sure the EPA is enforcing our water quality laws and our air laws. Probably one of the biggest disappointments, and this is where I’ll step away from water for a minute, is around climate. There [00:11:00] was a very ambitious program under the previous president, called the Clean Power Plan, to transition from dirty coal-fired power plants to solar and clean natural gas, efficient natural gas, as well as conservation with assistance for low-income communities.


President Trump has essentially said that he’s gonna shut that down. That really distresses me because Florida is threatened [00:11:30] by the effects of climate change like no other state in the country. We’re a low-lying and coastal state, we’re vulnerable to storms, we have a problem with sea level rise, which we’ve already seen, and we really need to do something. I get really angry and frustrated with people who say, “Well, my little part of it can be so little. Why should Florida do something? No one else is doing it.” That’s not the answer.


Florida should be [00:12:00] a leader on climate change, even if we have a Trump presidency that says we’re not gonna do anything to help the environment, I think that it’s time for Florida to step up.


Chris Cate: Yeah, absolutely. I want to wrap up with our final four quick questions. I call them the “Final Four.” There are no wrong answers here, so just answer with what comes to mind. Hopefully they should be fun questions for you. The first is, “Do you have a favorite Florida place to visit?” It could be a city, [00:12:30] a beach, or a restaurant, whatever you like. Where is a favorite place in Florida you like to go?


Eric Draper: My favorite place, believe it or not, is just here in Tallahassee. It’s a little ridge that perches over Lake Jackson. I love to go out there and sit and think about life.


Chris Cate: Who is a Florida leader that you admire? It could be someone historic or someone still actively working today.


Eric Draper: We’re [00:13:00] gonna be honoring Nathaniel Reed next week at an event, giving him a big award. He has probably done more than any other environmental leader for the state of Florida. There have been so many good leaders, but he’s currently on my all-time favorite list.


Chris Cate: Good. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team?


Eric Draper: I don’t have a favorite team. I enjoy watching college football, and of course I’ve gotta root for the [00:13:30] Seminoles because that’s our hometown team. I’m a cyclist and I enjoy cycling. That’s probably the sport I pay the most attention to.


Chris Cate: Okay, good. Last question, last of these four. What person, place, or thing deserves more positive attention than what it is currently getting?


Eric Draper: I think that Florida springs deserve more attention. They are something that is rare [00:14:00] and unique as the Grand Canyon. You would never allow to have happened to the Grand Canyon what we’re allowing to have happened to Florida springs. People need to recognize these vast, wonderful waterways are something that are really worth protecting and really something to enjoy.


Chris Cate: Yeah, that’s a really cool comparison. Well, that wraps up our Final Four. I think we’ll bring everything to a close. But I do really appreciate you being on the show.


Eric Draper: Chris, thank you so [00:14:30] much for inviting me. I enjoyed having the chance to chat with you.


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