Sawgrass Rebellion Snuffed Out by Local Politicians

Published January 1, 2003

Florida’s Sawgrass Rebellion was snuffed out October 17 when the sponsors were unable to obtain from local government officials a permit to hold the event. Confronted by the power of petty tyrants, a protest rally once expected to draw thousands of angry citizens from across the country became instead a soul-searching cross-country tour for a caravan of citizen activists.

Controlled Flooding Spurred Rebellion

Naples, Florida, just north of the Everglades, had become the epicenter of a citizen protest movement that came to be known as the Sawgrass Rebellion. The Rebellion took root as the Army Corps of Engineers began raising the water table in the nearby Everglades, flooding out longtime citizens. Allegedly motivated by an effort to save the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the Corps has been condemning and confiscating the homes it can legally take … and flooding out those citizens beyond the reach of their confiscation powers.

The Corps has taken steps to condemn 100 homes in and around the Everglades, claiming the government agency needs the land as a “buffer zone” for its projects. For land it can’t acquire by condemnation, artificial flooding is serving the Corps’ purpose. Many local citizens doubt this is about the sparrow, claiming ulterior motives are at work.

The flooding occurs when the Corps artificially holds back water during nesting season in areas inhabited by the sparrow. Holding back water in some areas results in flooding in other areas. Coincidentally–or not–homes the Corps would like to acquire are frequent flooding victims.

Westerners to the Rescue

The New Mexico-based Paragon Foundation emerged as a key organizer in the October 17-18 Sawgrass Rebellion protests planned for Naples, and an October 19 protest scheduled for Homestead.

Caravans from as far away as Klamath Falls, Oregon and Darby, Ohio planned to make the cross-country trek, picking up supporters on the way, in an effort to help out fellow citizens in need. Capturing and expanding upon the spirit of the Klamath Falls protests in the summer of 2001 (see “Klamath Falls bucket brigade protests water shutoff,” Environment & Climate News, July 2001), Sawgrass Rebellion organizers expected as many as 30,000 people to participate in the protests.

Protesters Denied a Rally Site

However, storm clouds began gathering over the Sawgrass plans during the late summer as one after another proposed rally site was denied to the protesters. First, Collier County rescinded its offer to make the county fairgrounds available for the protests. Although the fairgrounds are accustomed to, and indeed designed for, large gatherings of people, the County claimed the fairgrounds could not accommodate the Rebellion’s expected turnout.

After the fairground arrangements collapsed, one privately owned meeting place after another was initially offered to rally organizers, but then rescinded after what some called “government arm-twisting.” According to the Paragon Foundation’s J. Zane Walley, a high-ranking Collier County official appeared to be threatening reprisals against potential hosts for the Rebellion.

“Desperate and determined, property rights activists could only manage to obtain a yard sale permit from the county government in order to hold a small rally for local activists and supporters who arrived from around the nation via caravan,” reported the American Policy Center’s Tom DeWeese.

“We hope it isn’t maneuvering by anyone in the county government” that forced the cancellation of the Rebellion, opined the Naples Daily News. “Detecting a hint of official opposition makes us wonder what it is that we were not to be trusted to hear.”

Convoy Makes the Trip

In the end, a convoy of roughly 50 vehicles made the cross-country trek in symbolic support for the failed event. “We were five stops into the tour, in Nevada, when they called us up and said the whole thing was off,” said convoy leader Bill Ransom. “But we had no intention of heading home.”

The convoy made the journey to the Dade County Farm Bureau in the Miami suburb of Homestead, which had been the planned site for the final day of the Rebellion. “These are the people that invited us in the first place, now there’s nobody,” said Ransom.

Nevertheless, any disappointment caused by the deserted rally site was eased as the protesters made their way back west. On their way to Florida, the convoy had visited the Mississippi state capitol at the request of Rep. Daniel Stephen Holland, chair of the state’s Standing Committee on Agriculture. Now that they were heading west again, Speaker of the House Jim Ford invited the protesters back for an encore visit.

Upon entering a session of the state legislature, the Oregon and Nevada visitors were greeted with a rousing standing ovation. “We absolutely appreciate what you all are doing to raise awareness of the issues,” Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck told the group. The westerners then attended a series of meetings with state legislators.

“We have not been hit as hard as you have been, but it’s coming,” said Rep. Herb Frierson of Hancock County. “We have passed a bill here that says if an act of government diminishes the value of a person’s property, then compensation is due. The challenge is getting the federal government to recognize that without resorting to litigation.”

Rep. Bo Eaton of Smith County told the visitors that federal agencies, under fear of activist lawsuits, have halted virtually all logging in his county.

“We used to manage underbrush with controlled burns, but they have become so hardnosed about issuing burning permits that burning has stopped,” said Eaton. “It’s crazy, because now we are forced to use chemical burning, where we treat the ground with stuff that kills everything.”

“The whole experience was inspiring,” said Ransom. “I envisioned elected officials as being unapproachable. It was amazing how those people came to me, walked up and shook my hand. Everybody was genuinely interested and supportive, the one exception being the Sierra Club’s representative.”

“I think we were able to give a better understanding of what issues the West faces,” said convoy participant Grant Gerber. “From their explanations it was clear Mississippi was being hurt by environmental regulations, mostly concerning wetlands.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.