Water, Water ... Nowhere?
Strahl '77 helps rescue the Everglades


By Marc Glass '88

Forty years ago, chemistry professor Walter Lawrance went solo in his attempt to clean up the Androscoggin River, with limited success. Twenty-five years ago, the late Ed Muskie '36 flexed the fed's muscles in clean air and water campaigns.

Today, Stuart Strahl '77 symbolizes the more sophisticated, broad-based, and cooperative approach required for a large-scale environmental project: the restoration of the Florida Everglades, considered the most endangered ecosystem in America.

Strahl, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades restoration campaign in Miami, is in charge of the largest ecological restoration project in the Audubon Society's history, and perhaps one of the largest such projects in history, period. Over the next two decades, upwards of $5 billion will be spent to restore the endangered Everglades and ensure a stable south Florida water supply, both for the area's fragile ecosystem and for human use.

Strahl's work involves marshalling the forces of 30 conservation groups nationwide. He's got a staff of 20 professionals in the Miami office. "We're the non-profit leader of the project," he said in a phone interview recently. "In some ways, we're as involved as government agencies. While we don't do the actual implementation, we're building constituencies and are heavily involved in the planning."

Strahl is charged with raising public awareness and support, overseeing scientists and technical personnel who monitor water use and quality, working with state and federal legislators to craft viable Everglades restoration programs, educating south Florida's citizens and business community about the social and financial costs of neglecting the Everglades, and figuring out how to pay for everything.

"When I finish with this call, for example, I'll be on the phone with the district engineer [of the Army Corps of Engineers] on how to strategize to increase his federal appropriation," he said.

A stable water supply is a critical part of south Florida's $18-billion tourist industry. "It's important for a business community, which has nine million tourists annually in Dade County alone, to see potable water as a currency," Strahl said. "If people act now, the money they spend to restore the Everglades can be matched by state and federal funds. But if we wait and let the Everglades deteriorate, we'll have to put the money into desalinization plants. The cost of drinking water will soar."

Like Muskie and Lawrance before him, Strahl gained environmental awareness after encountering the smelly, foam-filled Androscoggin River. His first view of the then-polluted river came 25 years ago, while driving over the Longley Bridge on the way to his Bates admissions interview.

His interview was with Dean of the College James Carignan '61. "But I didn't know he was dean, and I laid into him pretty hard," Strahl said. "I wanted to know what Bates was doing about the three-foot-deep suds on the river."

Not much, really, as it turned out. "The biology curriculum wasn't set up for field conservation activities," Strahl recalled. "And environmental activities were relegated to 'political' status." Today, on the other hand, the environmental studies curriculum at Bates combines extensive field opportunities with classroom insight into the complex relationship between the environment and "real-world" issues.

Yet, the inspiration for Strahl's current partnership-building approach with the Audubon Society may have been revealed through his biology studies at Bates. Strahl found academic inspiration in the concept of "altruism and cooperative behavior in the animal kingdom. It fascinated me." His senior biology thesis examined social behavior of cooperatively nesting birds. "Most species try to maximize genetic representation in the next generation, but jays and other birds that cooperate in the life cycle can be very successful."

Strahl's subsequent doctoral research led to a Ph.D. and a decade of work in the tropical ecosystems of South and Latin America. He was executive director of the Chesapeake Audubon Society in Maryland before accepting the Florida position.

Strahl recognizes that his collaborative approach in south Florida doesn't sit well with some environmentalists. "They have forgotten about the negotiating part," he said. "They need to figure out when to cooperate to reach their goals. Working with the government and businesses doesn't make us patsies."

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