When Eric Eikenberg graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he had little idea who Stoneman Douglas was, or that he would be walking in her boot-prints as an activist championing the Florida Everglades. Eikenberg began his position as the CEO of the Everglades Foundation in 2012 and has since been an unapologetic advocate for one of the most distinctly Floridian landmarks.
Eikenberg is fluent in Floridian. Whether it’s discussing the blue-green algae being discharged from the east and west sides of Lake Okeechobee, the pivotal function of the Everglades in cleaning the water of millions of South Floridians, or the two former Florida Governors that he had the chance to work closely with, Eikenberg seems to have found his calling in Florida. However, when Eric first moved to South Florida from New York, he saw so many Mets, Jets, and Giants colors that he says South Florida was like the sixth borough!
On this episode of Fluent in Floridian, SMPR CEO April Salter discusses with Eric Eikenberg the ties he has to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas the advocate. They also dive into the effect of sugarcane production on water quality, the #NowOrNeverglades movement, and the long trek towards a more permanent solution to the issues in Florida’s water management.
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 Chris Cate, and in this episode created by Salter Mitchell PR, our executive produce April Salter, the CEO of Salter Mitchell PR, talks to Eric Eikenberg, the CEO of the Everglades Foundation. In their conversation they discuss the important of Everglades restoration and how the health of the everglades impacts our state’s water and overall economy. Eric also shares how he hopes new governor Ron DeSantis will support Everglades restoration. You can hear it all right now.
April Salter: Eric, thank you so much for being with us on Fluent in Floridian this morning. You’ve had such an interesting career, basically working on all sides of politics, from working as a congressional staffer to Representative Clay Shaw to chief of staff to Governor Charlie Crist, and then as a lobbyist and now advocating for arguably what’s the most important environmental issue in the state of Florida. When you were a kid, did you imagine a life working in politics and political advocacy?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, first, April, it’s great to be with you back here in Tallahassee. The answer to your question is no, I grew up in a apolitical home. My parents were certainly knowledgeable of what was going on in the world, in the country. They were certainly conducting their civic duty by voting, but we were not as political as you may think. It wasn’t really until my time in high school where I found a love of politics, where I found a love for public service and the desire to do that. But as my childhood it was pretty normal, and it was free of politics at that point.
April Salter: Were you involved in student government or Boys State or any of that, so sort of leadership roles?
Eric Eikenberg: I was. I attended a small Christian school in Suffolk County, New York, Smithtown Christian, and they had a student council that I was elected to in elementary school, so I did serve in those capacities, and they were great fun. They had a guidance counselor who had been involved in Suffolk County politics as a young man as well, and he was a mentor for many people. So yeah, there was a little bit of that, I guess.
April Salter: It’s interesting how far teachers’ influence can extend. You never know that when you’re growing up. And so you grew up in Long Island area, and then moved to Broward County area when you were in high school.
Eric Eikenberg: That’s right.
April Salter: What kind of a transition was that and what did you … what do you think about when you remember your days of high school in Broward County?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, I remember it was following my freshman year in high school where my father had an opportunity in the company where he worked to transfer down to South Florida. So as a family, he made that announcement and we packed up and off we went South, as millions of people had been doing over the decades. So arrived in Broward County, Coral Springs, to be exact in 1991, the summer of ’91. But what I remember of that time in my life was the transition from a small town in Long Island to a major county, a major metropolitan area of South Florida.
But what’s interesting is there were so many former New Yorkers that were in Broward County at the time, so the transition wasn’t that difficult. I remember the kids in high school who were either Yankees, or Mets, Jets, Giant fans, calling it the sixth borough of New York being Broward County. So that transition was not too difficult. But I remember again from that small school growing up to then 3,000 students at the public high school where I attended. That was a big transition. And as a sophomore in high school and … I remember dealing with acne and issues of adolescence as you grow. You know, it was a time when I look back fondly now.
April Salter: Yeah, yeah. And Eric, so you graduated high school from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which of course is sadly the site of the worst mass shooting in our history. It must have been pretty shocking when you heard news about the shooting that occurred in the same hallways and classrooms that you attended. Have you been back to the school? Have you been involved with the faculty or the students since the shooting?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, first on that … on that February 14th when news started to come out that that tragedy occurred there, yeah, it was a punch to the gut for so many. I can’t even imagine what went through the minds and the hearts of the families that had children at Stoneman Douglas that day. I remember my time there from ’91 till ’94 where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was in the middle of nowhere. It was a brand new high school in the northwest section of Broward County, certainly not a populist part of the county. A lot of us from Coral Springs went to Stoneman Douglas. And that school, over the last 20 plus years, has produced a tremendous amount of talented students who have gone on to be great lawyers, doctors, pro athletes, you name it. But in the wake of that shooting, to see the caliber of students and the passion that they’ve had and the passion that they’ve communicated across this country, it made me quite proud to be a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Eric Eikenberg: I did go back. I took my own children. My kids were very interested to know that I attended there. They were certainly seeing the coverage on the news. We probably took a few months before we took them up there to see it, and there was an extraordinary memorial that was set up on the grounds of Douglas in honor of the children and the lives that were lost. So it was sad for our state, our community, but let’s learn from it and hopefully good comes out of it.
April Salter: Yeah. Of course Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is named for the champion of the Everglades, the place that you’re now in charge of. You are responsible for continuing a legacy that was created by a pretty incredible woman.
Eric Eikenberg: Yes.
April Salter: Were you aware when you were attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, were you aware of who she was in the larger landscape? And, you know, were you all sort of learning about the Everglades and experiencing that?
Eric Eikenberg: Sadly, no.
April Salter: That’s not unusual, I think.
Eric Eikenberg: You know, her name is on the front of that building, front of that school. There is a beautiful tribute to her, I assume it’s still there, of her life as a conservationist, as the mother of the Everglades, certainly as a distinguished journalist and author. But looking back on that, there was no concerted effort to tell students what we were … why the school was named after her, let alone we were a stone’s throw from the Everglades itself. So that was … looking back, it was a missed opportunity. But there’s no doubt that Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s legacy, her commitment to protecting this natural national treasure lives on in, certainly not one individual or one group that’s pursuing it. There’s many out there to protect America’s Everglades, but we’ve certainly had a champion that lead the groundwork for us, and we’re grateful for the life and work of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
April Salter: You must feel a bit like things have come full circle to attend high school in her name and then to be carrying on this legacy.
Eric Eikenberg: Yeah, that is interesting that it turned out that way. I’ve found that my time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was also a chance to understand government more fully, our system of government, our understanding of the political process and the importance of public service in engaging that way. She certainly was a public servant, whether she thought of that herself or not, but she was. And then to meet other people along the way who have all moved in a positive direction to continue her legacy. It’s been gratifying.
April Salter: Yeah, I bet. Of course the Everglades are one of the most fundamentally Florida features. Yet for many Floridians, I think the Everglades is kind of an unknown entity. They hear about it, but they don’t really experience it up close in their daily life except maybe driving around it or seeing it perhaps from an airplane. So why do you think the Everglades is so important to Florida? And why should Florida and Americans really care about the Everglades?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, the simple reason, April, it’s the water supply for over eight million south Floridians, a growing population in South Florida, let alone the some 128 million tourists that come to our state, a good number of them travel to South Florida. They rely on that water supply. But you’re right. I come upon and meet a variety of individuals, many natives of Florida, who have never experienced the Everglades themselves. Folks find out, they say they’re “appreciative but clueless.” I’ve hard that phrase.
So this is not a mountain range, this is not a Grand Canyon to go and experience. If you’re not paying attention to it, you may not even know what you’re seeing. But it is so critical. It’s the home to 77 endangered and threatened species. Again, it is the water supply. It’s the future of our state as it relates to our economy. Our tourism industry is what drives us. And it’s not all about coming down for amusement parks, it’s to recreate within the Everglades, to hunt, to fish, to explore the waterways of our estuaries that are connected and certainly our bays. So the Everglades is the heart of Florida, I like to say. But we need more attention to it. The public needs to be more engaged. I’m optimistic that that’s happening.
April Salter: Good. And if you were to recommend to a friend who had never experienced the Everglades, what would you tell them to do? How can they best enjoy that?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, the beauty of that question is we also have some great national parks that are right inside the Everglades. Just two years ago we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the US Parks Service, the parks system that Teddy Roosevelt established. So I would encourage people to go to Everglades National Park. It’s not a difficult drive from different parts of Florida. But go to Everglades National Park. Experience the ability to go bird watching, to see a tremendous amount of alligators, to see just the natural flora and fauna of that ecosystem, the iconic sawgrass. The multiple times that I’ve been out there, whether it’s on an airboat, on a bike, walking, there’s a whole different perspective. There’s new perspectives as you experience it. It is a treasure in our own backyard. There is no other place on the planet like it.
And the beauty of it is people understand it needs to be protected, and it’s a unifying issue. In our day today where we have so many issues that divide us, to be able to push a conservation message and agenda to protect the Everglades, Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and other national wildlife refuges in our own state. All of this is connected, and I encourage people to check it out and explore.
April Salter: Don’t be in such a rush as you’re driving through South Florida.
Eric Eikenberg: Right. That’s right. I had someone tell me the other day, When I’m driving and someone texts me, they get the automatic I’m driving, I can’t respond, and the person said “You’re always driving. Stop and smell a rose.” So I think it’s important for people to realize in the bustle that we go through each and every day and the lives that we live, we have a tremendous environment around us. These ecosystems need to be enjoyed and explored. People need to go smell a rose.
April Salter: Eric, one of the central issues of the 2018 midterm election in Florida was the blue green algae blooms that occurred as a result of the discharge from Lake Okeechobee. How do you view this issue both from a scientific perspective and also from a political one?
Eric Eikenberg: Sure. Well, I’m not a scientist, but I do work with a distinguished scientist, and I interact with a whole host of other scientists who are studying the issue that you’ve just raised. You have to look at the amount of pollution that we’ve allowed to pour into Lake Okeechobee. Talk about the iconic symbols of our state. Lake Okeechobee is right there along with the River of Grass. It is a dead body of water to the point where in early July, 90% of Lake Okeechobee was covered in the toxic blue green algae that you’re referencing. That’s a result of excess fertilizers. It’s plagued by primarily phosphorus, and when you have all that pouring in of phosphorus and fertilizers into a watershed, as the lake itself, and warm temperatures in the summertime, it’s just a recipe for disaster. And unfortunately, it’s the way we manage water that is adding to this problem.
The Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee is 70 plus years old. It’s being hardened as we sit here today, but that dike is a concern with 100,000 or so people living near it that there could be a safety issue. So the only option by the Army Corps of Engineers today is to lift the gates on the east and west side of Lake Okeechobee and blast billions of gallons of polluted water east and west. It’s a threat to human health, it’s a killer to the local economies, and it’s an ecological disaster.
The good news is we have a plan. We know that we can solve it. This is a problem we can solve. We just need continued political will to do it. So to take the science, translate that into the political science, that’s what has to happen now as we move into the next term of the legislature and the congress with a new governor.
April Salter: That’s an important transition here as we’re seeing Governor-elect DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried both coming into office with sort of new perspectives on this issue. What advice would you give them as they look towards their administrations in dealing with the Everglades? What are the things that they must do?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, I would tell them that this issue doesn’t impact Republicans and it doesn’t impact Democrats. It doesn’t segregate amongst political affiliation. All Floridians are suffering from the way we manage water today and the reasons why we have failed to deal with water quality issues in recent times. So knowing that there’s a public outcry, there’s a public sense of urgency to solve the problem, the governor-elect in particular has a tremendous opportunity to be a leader on this and to come into office, take this issue by the reins and realize that we can solve it. I’m very optimistic and encouraged by what he said during the campaign season as well as what he’s been saying after the election. But folks are also waiting to see results. And I think 2019 with a new administration, with a new legislature convening in March, we have to address these issues.
And I go back, April, to say we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Everglades restoration, the plan that’s been in place now for 18 years is the recipe to solve it. We need to store, treat, and send that water from Lake Okeechobee south. As much as both coasts don’t want it because of the algae, our fellow Floridians down on Monroe County in the Florida Keys, that fishery, that estuary of Florida Bay is desperate for the water. So these infrastructure projects, these reservoirs, the bridging of Tamiami Trail, these 12 foot beautiful bridges along Tamiami Trail are pulling the plug in the bathtub to allow water to flow south. And that’s ultimately the recipe to significantly reduce the discharges east and west. We need to store clean and send that water down to the Keys.
April Salter: Eric, you have begun a hashtag or a project called Now Or Neverglades. What exactly does that mean, and what have you been working on in relation to that?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, that phrase, I can’t take credit for that phrase. That campaign was led by a coalition of like minded individuals, businesses, and conservation organizations, companies like Orvis. The Orvis company, I was just with them, based in Manchester, Vermont, have a national reach. Folks, customers, and supporters of Orvis and their conservation programs, we’re proud to be one of those partners. But Orvis has stepped up as just one example to say we need to get the water right here in Florida, it’s having a tremendous negative impact on the economy in the fisheries of Florida. So by partnering with companies like Orvis, Patagonia, and countless others to say let’s do this, let’s store, clean, and send that water south.
Because quite frankly, as Palm Beach County just reported last week, we’re now in a drought. We now have drought conditions. We have too much water where we waste it, now we’re entering drought conditions. Fresh water is critical. The more we keep on the peninsula the more we have available to us. That’s gonna be the answer going forward.
And that Now Or Neverglades, it galvanized people across our state, not just in South Florida. And we in ’16 took a bus tour. We put that Now Or Neverglades hashtag on the side a bus, a shrink wrapped bus, and we went on a 12 day, 22 city tour of Florida, engaging college campuses, going to parades, going to different communities from Tampa to Naples to Stuart, down to Islamarada. I was heartened by that experience ’cause we met so many people that understood and realized that the future of Florida is our tourism industry, it’s our real estate industry, and when that’s threatened, our 21st century economy, when that’s threatened by environmental policies or issues that are causing algae, in particular, we need to fix it. And that’s what people are hoping. So Now Or Neverglades got us to this point now. After this election we’re looking forward to seeing positive results.
April Salter: Great. Everglades restoration is such a long play. As we were talking, you know, there are so many things that have been put in place years and years ago that are now beginning to see improvements. And the work that you do today may not see fruit until, you know, 20 years from now. Do you ever get discouraged by that? Or worry that we may not take action quick enough?
Eric Eikenberg: Yes. I have worried about that, that we don’t seize the immediate crisis or we don’t seize the opportunity to solve that problem. I feel like the Everglades, in just reading about it and seeing over these last 18 years or so, there’s a great sense of excitement about it. And then we settle down or we settle for whether it’s funding, below levels of funding that are needed for these projects, or we allow these projects to not become a reality. So I think you’ve hit on a question that when I get up now, and I’m one individual in the largest restoration project and there’s been so many people before me and there’s gonna be so many people that come after me, and there’s people that are with us now who are making a tremendous impact.
But the way I personally look at your question, I have four children, and my oldest now is 12 years old. When he was born in 2006, if you look back at that time there was about seven projects that had been authorized, there was excitement about dealing with those projects along the coast of Florida, not yet getting to the heart of the matter from Okeechobee down to the Keys, these new projects they’re doing. But here’s that child now at 12 years old, we don’t have one of those projects finished. So in 12 years we have levels of funding that are a hundred million dollars, the drop to 48, they jump up to 115. You know, this constant fluctuation, we need stability. We need stability and funding. We need to have a clear understanding of what projects are gonna get the best bang for the buck. How are we going to ensure that we’re keeping water flowing south down to the Florida Keys?
I’m now most optimistic that because of the projects that have been recently authorized, and because of the energy that’s come off of a Now Or Neverglades movement, and because of the excitement and the optimism of a new governor-elect that’s committed to this issue, 20 years from now if this generation doesn’t seize the moment we’re in right now and can solve it, then shame on all of us. As long as I’m here, I’m not gonna allow it to happen, and I’m emboldened with so many people standing with me to do just that.
April Salter: That’s great. Eric, you have four beautiful children, and I know it must be a challenge to find the time to put the attention on them and raise them as you want them to grow up. You’ve got a beautiful wife. What is that like trying to manage the responsibilities that you have with trying to be a good dad?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, I have to give my wife a lot of credit. Tanya keeps our household together, four kids all roughly 15 months apart, has challenging moments over the last 12 years. There’s nothing like family. I remember my old boss, Clay Shaw, has four children and 16 grandchildren. I remember my wife and I were at a Christmas party that he and Emily hosted, and we got back in the car after a complete scene of chaos in that house. She got in the car and she looked at me and she said, “I want that”, as she pointed to the house. She wanted that sense of family, that structure. So I didn’t have really much to say when she was hoping for four children, so God has blessed us with four great kids.
But what she has also said is we only have a short amount of time with them. Soon they’re gonna be off going to college, and they’ll be starting their own careers and having their own families. So we have these summers and these breaks during the course of the year. We try to take advantage of that. Certainly they’re seeing politics, and I’m giving them a little bit of that, ’cause they should know about politics and public service and how admirable it is to serve the public.
But also we’ve taken them to experience our national parks, and to take them out west. I never went out west as a kid, never went out west. So to be able to go see the Grand Tetons, to be able to go see Yellowstone, to go and spend time in northern Arkansas on the Buffalo River and to see the beauty, just three examples of many that we’ve done. I want my kids to look back and wonder what the old man was doing when they were growing up and to realize that he was committed to doing something that was important to our state, important to our future, but also providing them as children to see different … to experience different opportunities. I think as parents, that’s our biggest challenge and opportunity is to, one, protect our kids, give our kids opportunities, but also to instill in them the need to protect what God’s given us. And that’s been a great joy to see.
April Salter: Absolutely. Well, thank you. Finally, Eric, we always wrap up with a couple of questions. First of all, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Eric Eikenberg: I knew that question was probably gonna come, ’cause I’ve been a fan of this podcast over the years. I am a diehard Baltimore Oriole fan. My friends will know that. So baseball is our sport, we love baseball. We do like taking the kids to see baseball games at Marlins Park. I can’t say that I’m a Marlins fan, but we do enjoy going to watch Marlins baseball and the teams that come to play there in Miami. But we’re a sports family, and we enjoy watching and playing. But I would say it’s our time at Marlins Park that’s been most gratifying.
April Salter: And Eric, what Florida person, place, or thing do you think deserves more attention? Maybe an issue or-
Eric Eikenberg: Sure. Well, I’m gonna take the person. I’m gonna give you two people, if I may. I think two people that this state and future generations should know their impact, ’cause they had certainly an impact on me. First is Clay Shaw. Congressman Shaw served our state and our nation for 26 years in Washington. He represented a Democrat, majority Democrat district for if not all, most of his time in Congress. I was able to see him bridge relationships across the aisle. He had as many friends who were Democrats as he did Republican. He pushed policies that were certainly true to his own beliefs, but he understood the need to compromise. He understood the need to find common ground. And I think we’re missing some of that. Clay Shaw did it each and every day. He left an indelible mark on my life as it relates to how you tackle problems and how you tackle opportunities. He’s missed every day. But I would say that Clay Shaw doesn’t get enough credit for what he did for South Florida and for our state. And I hope future generations will be able to do that.
The second person is still with us, and I’m delighted that he is. I’ve had a great amount of time getting to know and being with Governor Bob Martinez. I have spent at time at [inaudible 00:28:48]. He and I co chaired their government advocacy program of lobbying. Governor Martinez served one term as governor. He was involuntarily retired by your former boss. But he too has demonstrated himself after office as a statesman-
April Salter: Absolutely.
Eric Eikenberg: … as understanding why this state is so great. And the opportunities that he was given as the first Hispanic individual elected to high office in this state. I love Bob Martinez. I enjoy speaking with him often. I just sent him a note last week. He was in Washington for President Bush’s funeral as a member of the Cabinet as drug czar. And he’s experienced not only as mayor of Tampa, as governor of Florida, as drug czar at the federal level, but he’s also demonstrated that you can, despite a loss, that politics and public service had a tremendous impact on his life. So I do want to acknowledge Bob Martinez and Mary Jane as two great Floridians.
April Salter: Absolutely. Eric, what is your favorite Florida location to visit? It could be a city, a restaurant, or whatever you like. Someplace that is special to you.
Eric Eikenberg: Well, we spend a lot of time in Naples. We enjoy Naples, it’s only a couple hour drive west from Miami. But it’s a place where we’ve been able to take the kids to Corkscrew Swamp, the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp there in Collier County. The Big Cypress is certainly on the way. We travel to Naples along Tamiami Trail, and we stop off at the different rest stops along Tamiami Trail to see the plethora of alligators. But there’s a part of Naples that’s old Florida. To be able to see that … it’s not overly developed. It’s not … Season time there’s a lot of people there. But we have very fond memories as a family, spending good quality time in Naples and that environment. So I would have to say that’s probably our spot to go.
April Salter: It’s a beautiful area. Yeah. And then you’ve kind of touched on this with a Florida leader that you admire. But is there anyone else that you would like to mention as a Florida leader that you think really stands out? Maybe one of our future up and coming leaders?
Eric Eikenberg: Well, I think our future and up and coming leaders need to spend time understanding and educating themselves on leaders of the past. Your former boss, Lawton Chiles was certainly a leader of this state. I had the privilege when I was here under Crist to meet Governor Askew, to spend time with Governor Graham. Certainly know of the impact that Governor Bush has had on this state as well as Governor Crist. So the past is prologue, so the new coming, the new administration, this governor … I’ve spent time with Governor DeSantis. I think he’s gonna take these issues with great gusto. And I look forward one day to looking back on his time in office and seeing the impact that he’s had. So study what’s come before us and go forth.
Eric Eikenberg: I would just leave you with this, too. This weekend there was a memorial service for Nathaniel Reed-
April Salter: Oh, great man. What a leader.
Eric Eikenberg: … who served under President Nixon, President Ford. He was Claude Kirk’s-
April Salter: Interior Secretary.
Eric Eikenberg: He was Assistant Secretary of the Interior. And in 1966, 1967 he was Claude Kirk’s environmental aide when Governor Kirk was elected governor. But Nathaniel Reed also left a considerable mark on the Everglades, on the need to protect Lake Okeechobee and the endangered species that call that home. But he too understood consensus and finding common ground, but he didn’t step away from a fight. He didn’t step away from doing what is right.
April Salter: Yeah.
Eric Eikenberg: We miss Nathaniel, and we were delighted to honor him this weekend. So I would say that he’s somebody that’s had a major impact as well.
April Salter: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Eric. It was great to talk to you today, and wish you and the Florida Everglades much success. We need you, we need you in that role and really appreciate what you’re doing.
Eric Eikenberg: Thank you, April. Great to be here.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at Salter Mitchell PR.
If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com.
You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian Podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.