Secrets of the swamp

A powerful Everglades nonprofit, closely allied with Ron DeSantis, sued one of its former scientists for stealing trade secrets. What was the foundation really after?

Media partner

The New Republic

Everglades National Park on Feb. 1, 2023 in Homestead, Florida. Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

This article was produced in collaboration with The New Republic. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].

In early February 2022, Tom Van Lent sent a note to his employers: He intended to resign from The Everglades Foundation at the end of the month. He adopted a conciliatory tone—“my career at the Foundation has been a source of personal pride,” he wrote—but everyone knew that Van Lent, one of the most prominent scientists in Everglades restoration, had been unhappy for years.

The Everglades Foundation is an exemplar of a certain strain of nonprofit: well-connected and well-funded, bankrolled by a hedge fund billionaire. The group is open about its focus not on grassroots but on what its CEO calls “grasstops,” the lobbyists and politicians who set Everglades policy. Van Lent came on board in 2005, tasked with ensuring that this policy was grounded in good science. He was a conduit, in essence, ensuring that the best and latest research reached the desks of decision-makers.

By all accounts, he was good at distilling complex subjects into easy-to-grasp form, and by 2016 he’d ascended to vice president of programs. Soon, though, he began to feel that his bosses had changed the meaning of his job. Rather than pushing lobbyists to incorporate the best science, they were listening to the lobbyists’ favored plans and seeking to publish science that conformed. When his final day arrived, after Van Lent wiped clean his work-issued laptop, he couldn’t help but take a swipe at the organization: In a note on Twitter, he announced his plan to move to another nonprofit, smaller and scrappier—one that “put facts over politics,” he wrote.

Five weeks later, the foundation filed a lawsuit in district court, accusing Van Lent of waging “a secret campaign of theft and destruction.” He’d destroyed scientific archives, the complaint said, and made off with trade secrets. Van Lent, for his part, accused the foundation of attempting to “bully, harass, scare, smear and silence” him.

Beloved parks like the Everglades usually offer a chance for feel-good politics; polls show that Americans of all stripes support protections for nature, water especially. In Florida, Democrats and Republicans both clamber to position themselves as the Everglades’ greatest champions. But beneath the veneer of the press releases, there have always been disagreements over the best approach to conservation—and differences in how willing politicians are to accept inconvenient science.

Thomas Van Lent was accused by The Everglades Foundation of stealing proprietary information when he left the organization. Photo by Alicia Osborne for The New Republic/FERN.

The Everglades Foundation’s case against Van Lent offers a rare glimpse of those tensions, and reveals the extent to which money and power can influence decision-making in the world of conservation. The idea that a science-focused nonprofit might possess trade secrets presents a particular stumbling block to some conservationists. “You cannot have trade secrets and call it science,” Stuart Pimm, one of the world’s foremost conservation ecologists, told me. He thinks that with this lawsuit, the Everglades Foundation has crossed a threshold, undermining its credibility as a research institution by smothering its own research. “For somebody to try and shut up the scientists,” he said, “that is very, very worrying business.”

The foundation, of course, contends that this case is not about science or research at all. It’s just an employment matter—an attempt to seek restitution after Van Lent’s alleged sabotage.

The foundation’s story and Van Lent’s are, in most ways, entirely contradictory, but there is one point of agreement: Van Lent was disgruntled.

Many people have been unhappy in Florida lately, with good reason. Again and again—in 2013, in 2016, in 2018—red tides and vast blooms of algae have appeared on its shores. The blooms first appear on Lake Okeechobee, a giant but shallow pool of freshwater that, filled with runoff and baked under the summer sun, serves as a breeding ground for toxic microbes. The lake once spilled its water into the Everglades, but, beginning in the early twentieth century, a dike was built along its southern shore to protect local farms. When the lake grows too filled with rainfall, its tainted water is shunted east and west, through man-made canals, into rivers that reach the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the water flows through delicate coastal estuaries. The beaches begin to stink of rot; the tourism economy grinds to a halt.

Van Lent’s boss, Eric Eikenberg, came on board in 2012, after serving as chief of staff to a congressman and a governor, both Republicans. In a brief stint as a lobbyist, he helped bring the beloved Pennsylvania convenience store chain Wawa to Florida. He was, in other words, a consummate politician, and he knew how to play a crisis to his advantage. In 2016, he used the latest batch of grim headlines to push for a restoration plan that had long been environmentalists’ dream. A sprawling reservoir, built south of Lake Okeechobee, could store (and clean) some water before it was sent on to farms and cities and to Everglades National Park. At 60,000 acres, the proposed pool could swallow entire Florida cities.

The state Senate president, Republican Joe Negron, promoted a bill that authorized the government to acquire the necessary land, even in the absence of willing sellers—a bold move, given the politics involved. Land tends to be the sticking point for conservation projects, not just in Florida, but across the world; conservative groups love to describe restoration projects as authoritarian “land grabs.” Though Floridians have voted in favor of land acquisition, some environmental groups complain that the designated money is being used for other purposes. Negron eventually grew gun-shy. On a Sunday in spring 2017, he called Eikenberg into his office, where the senator announced he’d changed his bill. He’d reduced the size of the proposed reservoir’s footprint so that it could be built on property the state already owned. “It was presented as a take it or leave it,” Eikenberg later told NPR. He decided to take the deal, because he did not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Eventually, the reservoir was whittled down to just 10,000 acres.

Jacquie Weisblum, the nonprofit’s vice president overseeing communications, told me that the foundation’s leadership consulted its science team—including Van Lent—and determined that, despite the smaller footprint, the reservoir could still meet the needed goals. What mattered was not acreage, but volume; to increase the volume stored, the reservoir could be surrounded by tall walls. Other Everglades conservationists, however, objected to a different element of the compromise law: It prohibited the use of eminent domain. This one reservoir would not be enough, they felt, and the state needed a path to acquire more land. The disagreement made for a confusing and argumentative time, one organizer told me.

The Everglades Foundation’s proposed reservoir was supposed store (and clean) some water from Lake Okeechobee before it was sent on to farms and cities and to Everglades National Park. Infographic by Haisam Hussein.

Van Lent said that he had never endorsed nor condemned the reservoir proposal, just tried to make clear its potential impacts. To that end, and at the request of other nonprofits, Van Lent pulled together a technical FAQ in early 2018. Federal laws, he noted, set strict limits on how much pollution can be in water sent into the Everglades, and the reservoir was unlikely to meet these requirements; the increased depth would inhibit the growth of the vegetation that helps clean the water. Van Lent had questions, too, about the computer models that the South Florida Water Management District—the state agency that, in collaboration with the federal government, controls local water flow—used to justify the plan. Van Lent sent the document to Eikenberg and to leaders of other environmental groups. Eikenberg, he said, was disappointed he had not had a chance to edit the final version.

Eikenberg’s view, as Van Lent understood it, was that political science trumped science when it came to getting things done.

Soon afterward, the foundation scheduled what was supposed to be a technical meeting with the water district. Van Lent hoped to discuss the flaws he saw in its models. But when he and his colleagues posed questions, Eikenberg stepped in to conduct a cross-examination, Van Lent said. The foundation declined to make Eikenberg available for an interview, but Weisblum described the meeting as a constructive conversation.

Van Lent, however, said that he felt he and the science team were “under attack—not just by the district, which we kind of expected, but by our own leadership.” Eikenberg had not just accepted a compromise; he’d become its cheerleader. Eikenberg’s view, as Van Lent understood it, was that political science trumped science when it came to getting things done. Soon the two men had what a judge later described as a “loud disagreement.” One of the foundation’s executives testified that the event went down in infamy. Though the fight preceded her tenure, she’d heard stories that Van Lent had shouted and pounded a table with his fists. According to her testimony, Eikenberg feared that he might be assaulted by his employee.

To create the modern world, engineers had to devise an intricate system for moving water. Seawalls hold back the tides; culverts carry rainfall to where it’s needed. Under every city lies a tangled map of pipelines, feeding our sinks and draining our toilets. Typically, it’s easy to overlook this system, at least when it’s working, but not in Florida. Pull up Google Maps as you drive and you’ll notice the landscape is crossed by perfectly straight lines of blue. These are the canals that allow people to build farms and suburbs atop what, in natural conditions, would be one vast swamp.

The dream of draining the Everglades goes back more than 150 years, but this is a relatively new system. The first canals through the Everglades were dug in the early 1900s. And it did not take long for the scientists to discover bad news. At the tip of Florida, the soils—goopy and black, known locally as “muck”—lay too thin in some places to ever be farmable. So Florida officials settled for a backup plan. In 1947, part of the Everglades was enshrined as the nation’s first wetlands national park. The park, however, preserved only the southernmost fringe of the ecosystem, and its birth was not the end of the drainage dreams. Indeed, the following year, the federal government announced a very different project in the northern Everglades, where farming had already begun. Even more canals—and levees, too—would be dug to ensure a swath of wetlands was kept entirely dry. The purpose of this project was made clear in the region’s new name: the Everglades Agricultural Area, or EAA.

Over the next few decades, the population in South Florida boomed. But the newcomers’ very presence tainted the paradise they were trying to inhabit. Among the most pressing issues was the self-defeating nature of the canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area. By lowering the water table, the canals allowed salt water to infiltrate the aquifers, contaminating urban drinking water.

The imperative of keeping Florida paradisial has made for a strange coalition of Everglades advocates. Van Lent’s first boss at the Everglades Foundation was a former Republican senator named Bob Smith, who once stabbed a plastic fetus with a pair of scissors on the Senate floor, a stunt meant to demonstrate the evils of abortion; he quit the GOP in 1999, calling it too centrist, and ran for president as a third-party candidate. Van Lent said he diverged from Smith on nearly every issue but loved working for him: They were both Everglades warriors.

Van Lent saw himself as an honest broker. The foundation could make whatever compromises it wanted; his job was to clarify the consequences. “Eric Eikenberg saw it differently,” Van Lent explained. “I was a member of the management of Everglades Foundation, I therefore had an obligation to fall in line.” His FAQ was eventually pulled from the foundation’s website—a fact that Weisblum acknowledged but declined to explain. Court testimony revealed that, after Eikenberg decided that Van Lent could not be trusted to speak in support of the foundation’s preferred policies, he was demoted from vice president to “senior scientist.”

By the time that Van Lent developed an exit plan, in early 2022, he realized that disentangling himself would not be easy. His sole computer was a laptop issued to him by the nonprofit, so his personal records—banking data, health care paperwork, family photos—had become intermingled with his official work. A few weeks before he sent his resignation letter, Van Lent began his clean-out.

He searched for, among other queries, “Gmail delete all emails,” and followed the instructions to empty his email and calendars. The hardest task, he knew, would be sorting through his work folder on the foundation’s server. To make the job easier, he said, he pulled it off the server and placed it on an external hard drive, where he could delete the files that were not relevant to the foundation. Then, over the weekend before his last day of work, he said, he attempted to re-upload the cleaned-up folder. Given the volume of data—the original folder contained more than 400,000 files, hundreds of gigabytes—the process would take a long time, especially over the slow internet connection at his home in Tallahassee. So he let the upload run while he left town for a wedding.

When Van Lent returned on Sunday, he said, he reset the laptop to its factory settings, presuming the job was finished. On his last day of work, during an exit interview, he explained the steps he’d taken, noting that all of his files should be on the server. Then he sent his tweet.

The foundation’s leaders were shocked by Van Lent’s announcement. They’d presumed he was retiring. They found his wiped-clean laptop suspicious, too. So, for $275 an hour, they hired a forensic expert to analyze the hard drive and reconstruct what was missing. The investigator quickly noted that Van Lent’s server folder was empty.

According to Van Lent, he realized his upload had failed only when the foundation confronted him with this fact. But he had a backup version of his work on a hard drive, which he copied and delivered to the foundation. To his former employers, this ability to re-create the archive was also problematic. He had copies of models and presentations and strategic plans that the foundation used to seek grants and secure funding. Van Lent told me he was willing to commit to not disclosing trade secrets—if the foundation would identify what precisely was considered to be secret. He felt that the foundation was trying to stop him from sharing any Everglades-related information—which would have meant he could no longer work. The foundation felt Van Lent was being truculent, and decided by April to file suit.

The complaint alleged that by deleting files (including those created by other scientists) off its servers, Van Lent had destroyed the foundation’s property—like setting a filing cabinet on fire while exiting the building. Weisblum indicated that, as of spring 2024, the foundation is still missing some of these documents, though the only specific materials she described were, according to Van Lent, old and irrelevant, deleted weeks before his departure so he could free up space on a notoriously overloaded server. He said that he had, to the best of his ability, restored the foundation’s materials before they filed suit.

“We’re not willing to settle for political compromises that won’t serve the Everglades in the long run.”

Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades

The complaint’s second claim, that Van Lent had stolen trade secrets, was more explosive, and more essential to the foundation’s case. Citing Florida’s trade secret law, the nonprofit requested that the court force Van Lent to turn over his laptop and other devices for analysis. But these allegations were also more legally dubious. Lawyers argue that information about nonprofit donors can be considered a trade secret (which Van Lent, in his testimony, seemed to acknowledge, too). Scientific research used for a publicly funded restoration project is murkier territory. In 2020, a prominent Louisiana nonprofit sued two scientists who, upon leaving to join another research institute, downloaded a computer model. But the nonprofit had not explicitly prohibited the download, and the model had been built with public funding. The case was eventually dropped. The main result was a bad look for the field; the whole idea of “trade secrets” suggested that some groups were getting rich off an environmental crisis.

One key challenge in these kinds of cases is the high burden of proof required by trade secret law. Plaintiffs must prove that the trade secrets are in fact trade secrets, and then establish either that they were improperly acquired or that their disclosure breached a duty of confidentiality. Van Lent testified that, in his 17 years at the foundation, no files had ever been identified as a protected trade secret, and that scientists routinely departed with copies of their work—a practice the foundation’s employee handbook did not expressly forbid. Nonetheless, Carlos Lopez, the judge assigned to the case, decided the foundation’s trade secret complaint merited a temporary injunction.

Lopez was generous to the plaintiffs. He adopted the language of the foundation’s requested injunction wholesale, changing only the bond amount. He failed even to strike the word “proposed” from the title—a point of confusion for Van Lent, who said he did not understand it was in effect. Whether he understood it or not, he was now legally required to “immediately cease use or deletion of any materials” on any form of device that could store digital data. If taken literally, the order would have cast Van Lent out of the modern internet era, unable to use a computer, a laptop, a cell phone—unable to attend his trial, even, which was scheduled to be held on Zoom.

Van Lent’s new job is with the Friends of the Everglades—whose name is sufficiently similar to the Everglades Foundation that the two are easy to confuse. If there’s a silver lining to the whole mess, said Eve Samples, the group’s executive director, it’s that it makes her nonprofit’s commitment to science clearer: “We’re not willing to settle for political compromises that won’t serve the Everglades in the long run,” she said.

The two groups have very different origin stories. The Everglades Foundation was formed in the 1990s by two wealthy fishing buddies—billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and an Orlando real estate developer named George Barley. Friends of the Everglades, meanwhile, was founded in 1969 by a scrappy 78-year-old writer named Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Douglas began her career as a newspaper writer who cheered on the drainage of the Everglades. Then she was commissioned to write a book about the place—and fell in love. Two decades later, after publishing 10 more books, she grew worried about a plan to build a massive airport just outside the park. In her second career as an environmental warrior, she used her age to her advantage: “Nobody can be rude to me,” she once told an interviewer. At five feet tall, wearing floppy hats and floral print dresses, she could be as sharp-tongued as necessary.

Van Lent encountered Douglas during his first stint in Florida, in the 1980s, when he worked for the South Florida Water Management District as a water resource engineer. At one point, the director asked Van Lent to run the numbers on a small ecological project; he’d gotten a call from Governor Bob Graham, he said, who was being pestered by some old lady about doing something to save the Everglades. When the project was done, the governor flew Douglas out in a helicopter: What did she think? he wanted to know. “Not enough,” she told him flatly. “Not nearly enough.”

Douglas did not think that the perfect was the enemy of the good. The perfect seemed to be the only thing worth fighting for. And her story offers an example that commitment to hard truths can work. Her sharp little rejoinder—“Not enough”—is often credited with prompting Graham to restore the Kissimmee River, perhaps the most successful Everglades project ever undertaken.

Van Lent, I think, has something of Douglas in him. When he first came to Florida to work as a hydrologist for the water management district in the 1980s, he had few ecological inclinations. But then he began to explore the Everglades. For years, he spent nearly every weekend in the park with his two sons, paddling through its sloughs. I told him I planned to camp there, too. As he wished me good luck on my trip, his voice faltered. “The Everglades for me is a special balm,” he said, pausing, seeming to hold back tears. “It just talks to me.” Perhaps he is a talented actor, or I’m a mark, but his passion seemed genuine.

In the late 1990s, Congress was working to develop an ambitious plan to restore South Florida—a rare bipartisan effort in a deeply divided moment. Van Lent, who then worked for the National Park Service, co-wrote a report, based on hydrological modeling, showing that Congress’s proposal was just a water supply plan for South Florida’s farms and suburbs, dressed up in ecological clothes. The park would see almost no benefits. That report constituted “the first time that Tom really stuck his neck out,” Stuart Pimm told me. Pimm joined five other prominent ecologists in signing an open letter confirming that there were “deep, systemic problems” in Congress’s plan.

Pimm himself flew to Washington for meetings, including with President Bill Clinton. He did not succeed in changing the plan’s water allocations, but he did convince officials that progress toward the goals needed to be routinely assessed by an independent panel from the National Academy of Sciences. “If you’re going to have a project like this, you have to have peer review,” he told me. “It has to be open, it has to be transparent, and it has to be out there for people to look at.”

Van Lent said he was recruited to work for the foundation because he had a reputation for speaking truth to power; his first boss, Bob Smith, told reporters that he’d wanted scientists who would make clear if he was pursuing the wrong policies. Seventeen years later, however, Van Lent felt isolated. He was pushed aside so that he would not voice “opinions contrary to the prevailing political regime led by Florida’s governor and reigning party, to which the Foundation had become beholden,” he wrote in response to the foundation’s complaint.

The governor in question was Ron DeSantis, who launched his first gubernatorial campaign, in 2018, amid yet another algal emergency. The blooms put a $2.7 billion dent in the local tourism economy alone and upended local politics.

The GOP establishment had backed the state’s agricultural commissioner, Adam Putnam, who had long been allied with the state’s industrial farmers. DeSantis, at the time a U.S. representative, came out swinging against Putnam, dubbing him—not wrongly—an “errand boy” for Big Sugar. Which is to say a man in cahoots with the industry that almost every Everglades advocate blames for the state’s modern woes.

If you’re asked to envision South Florida, you might conjure sandy beaches or glitzy cities or endless sprawl or vast untamable swamps. You’re unlikely to come up with the domain of Big Sugar: the Everglades Agricultural Area, that 700,000-acre swath of farmland just south of Lake Okeechobee. Local farmers like to tout the wide range of vegetables grown here, but the dominant crop, by far, is sugar. Two companies—U.S. Sugar and the Florida Crystals Corp.—together control around half of the area.

Mechanical harvesters cut sugar cane in the U.S. Sugar Corp. fields in 2008 in Clewiston, Florida, at the edge of the Everglades. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The crop is easy to despise. According to economists, the tariffs, quotas, and price support programs that prop up the sugar industry cost consumers as much $2 billion a year. For decades, sugar growers also benefited from a federal program that allowed workers to migrate from the West Indies—a labor pool the growers felt free to overwork and underpay. By the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that the water running off the EAA’s farms was heavily spiked with phosphorus fertilizer—concentrations 20 times higher than the Everglades’ delicate wetlands could handle. The sugar farms already soaked up more than half the water released by the South Florida Water Management District, while paying less than 1 percent of the taxes. Now, it was clear, their fertilizers were reshaping what wetlands remained.

When The Everglades Foundation was formed in 1993, Jones and Barley launched a referendum campaign: They wanted to tax the sugar growers and use the money to restore the wetlands. Barley died in a plane crash two years later, and his widow hired investigators to look into the potential role of Big Sugar. The sugar company owners lived in lavish mansions along the coast; a joke suggested that cane juice flowed out of the capital’s drinking fountains. As a business that soaked up tax dollars and tarnished the environment, sugar was an enemy that could unite both sides of the aisle. So the sugar barons lavished both sides with gifts. One moment looms large in the annals of Everglades history: In 1996, as he was breaking off his “relations” with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton paused to take a 22-minute phone call from a sugar grower whose family had paid out nearly a million dollars in donations that election season. Soon afterward, the administration amended its proposed Everglades policy in favor of Big Sugar.

As a rule, sugar companies do not talk to journalists. But they do talk to tourists. In Clewiston—AMERICA’S SWEETEST TOWN, as the signs proclaim—I met a farmer who gave guided tours. When I identified myself as a journalist, he did not want to give me his name, but he was chatty. He told me he’d put some of his farmland into conservation easements—an effort to protect habitat for the endangered Florida panther. He said that Florida was filled up and did not need to grow any further. But he was not convinced that Everglades restoration depended on farmland. Some of the environmental nonprofits do good work, he said, but others just like to gin up controversy so they can sell more T-shirts and hats.

It’s not just sugar barons who oppose the land sales. Many locals understand that even as the sugar industry creates only low-paying jobs—and leaves as much as a third of some towns’ residents living in poverty—the limited economy of their homeland is nonetheless dependent on agriculture. “If the farmers don’t do good, you don’t do good,” one local told a newspaper in 2017, as Florida debated Joe Negron’s plan to build a reservoir. The farmer who moonlighted as a tour guide pointed out, rightly, that decades of lawsuits and legislation have led to steep reductions in the amount of phosphorous coming off the EAA’s farms. A coalition called Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance claims that farmers have already paid more—$450 million over 20 years, per their accounting—than any other group to restore the Everglades. There are other sources of pollution, too, including old septic tanks and suburban sprawl up near Orlando.

Still, state and federal laws require the water be cleaned, and that cleaning is mostly accomplished in “stormwater treatment areas”—artificial wetlands where the plants will soak up the chemicals. The trouble for farmers in the EAA is, whether or not they are truly the villains, there is nowhere but their farms to build such infrastructure.

DeSantis, after declaring his opposition to Big Sugar, narrowly won his Republican primary. His Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, went on the record opposing radical changes to the EAA, prioritizing the needs of low-income sugar workers instead. But, unlike DeSantis, Gillum emphasized the science behind climate change, a choice that won endorsements from local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. But The Everglades Trust—a nonprofit with close ties to The Everglades Foundation, but which, as a 501(c)(4), can endorse political candidates—decided that DeSantis “walked the walk.” He was its pick for the election.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee construction of the actual reservoir, has noted “significant technical, policy and legal concerns” with the current plan.

After DeSantis won, Eikenberg, who once sat on the board of The Everglades Trust, was named to his transition team. After the new governor made headlines by calling on the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District to resign, Eikenberg sounded a triumphant note: “Here is a governor who is relying on science,” he said. “As a science-based organization, that is what we’ve been yearning for.”

Desantis’s commitment to science seems, given his lack of emphasis on climate, debatable. It’s undeniable, at least, that he succeeded at spending money on the Everglades. By the end of his first term, the government had poured $3.3 billion into water quality and Everglades restoration—nearly a billion more than DeSantis’s already ambitious initial promise. There is real momentum now; engineers are working on restoration projects at remarkable rates, according to the National Academy of Sciences panel. That includes the controversial reservoir—the EAA Reservoir, as it’s often known. The state is responsible for building the accompanying stormwater treatment area, and DeSantis likes to tout the fact that construction was launched 12 months ahead of schedule, in 2020.

But the Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee construction of the actual reservoir, has noted “significant technical, policy and legal concerns” with the current plan. In particular, the agency believes there is “significant risk” that the water inside the reservoir will not meet legal quality standards—potentially limiting how much can be released, or even forcing the reservoir to be taken offline. This, as the National Academy of Sciences panel has noted, may reduce the reservoir’s ability to mitigate the kind of algal blooms that stoked DeSantis’s campaign. One key issue is the size of the stormwater treatment area that the state is building. Given the shrunken footprint, there was only space for 6,500 acres. One prominent ecologist calculated that, given current water quality issues, 10 times or more space might be needed.

Or as Marjory Stoneman Douglas might put it: This project is not nearly enough.

Nevertheless, The Everglades Foundation and Ron DeSantis like to portray it as a victory. It’s the “crown jewel” of Everglades restoration, they say. The state needs somewhere to store water—both to supply the national park, which, thanks to the canals in the EAA, receives too little, and to relieve Lake Okeechobee so that its water won’t need to be sent as often into the canals. This project will address that need, Weisblum said. She added that, like other groups, the foundation sees water quality as nonnegotiable, and believes the state will address it.

Some groups think that, instead of spending money building massive walls for a deepwater reservoir—which has a projected $3 billion price tag—it would be cheaper to buy EAA land and create a larger, shallower reservoir that more closely mimics the natural state of water in the Everglades. Cris Costello, the senior organizing manager of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed out that, even in its new, DeSantis-era iteration, the South Florida Water Management District has only studied “land-restricted” approaches. DeSantis “is a master of the green­wash,” Costello said. According to her, his battle cries against Big Sugar are “all theater”: “He’s never done anything.” And The Everglades Foundation, with all its supposed clout, has failed to push for something better.

The DeSantis era has been good for The Everglades Foundation. The nonprofit’s revenue hit $28 million in 2022. (Eikenberg was paid $356,765 that year, and Van Lent alleged in his response to the lawsuit that his former boss receives even more money from The Everglades Trust; the trust denies paying Eikenberg.) Weisblum suggested those figures should be set against the funding of “the adversaries of the Everglades”—code, of course, for Big Sugar. Only a well-funded coalition can fight the wealthy sugar industry.

The foundation has long steered some of its resources toward other organizations; the Sierra Club, for instance, has received more than $100,000 in grants in past years. But, after it became clear in 2018 that their viewpoints on the reservoir and on land purchases differed, the two nonprofits parted ways. Costello worries other groups might not be able to take such a hit. A deep-pocketed and well-connected nonprofit may be positioned to drive restoration forward—but it can also function as a bludgeon, keeping smaller groups in line.

Van Lent’s trial, too, has had a David-and-Goliath dynamic. The foundation has retained seven lawyers from three firms, including an attorney who won a billion-dollar settlement in the Surfside condo collapse case in 2022. Van Lent, meanwhile, is represented by a Tallahassee lawyer who mostly deals in real estate closings. Despite his aggressive response to the foundation’s complaint, five months into the suit, in late August 2022, Van Lent agreed to settle. That meant that the foundation’s initial allegations were never tried before a jury.

The terms of the settlement prohibited Van Lent from sharing any of The Everglades Foundation’s confidential information, though which specific files that included remained unclear. More importantly, he’d finally have to ship his digital devices—and his wife’s, too, the foundation claimed—to the foundation’s hired expert. He packed his laptop and handed over the passwords for his emails. And the expert quickly noted a problem: In the weeks before he’d signed the settlement, Van Lent had removed 700,000 files from his laptop, including the foundation’s materials. Some files had been encrypted before deletion.

The foundation quickly asked the judge to find Van Lent to be in contempt of court.

Van Lent does not deny these allegations. But, he said, the devices contained personal information protected by attorney-client privilege, among other confidential documents. The idea that the judge would require that he turn over such information “just does not seem reasonable,” he said in court.

In May, Lopez decided Van Lent was guilty. In the ruling, the judge made his opinion about the initial allegations clear: Van Lent had meant to deprive the foundation of its research and hold onto files for his future use. But this was an aside, really; the trial was not meant to assess the legality of these acts. The real question was whether the scientist had violated the court’s injunction. Van Lent was judged on whether or not he had deleted any files on his computers—which, clearly, he had.

It’s important to note that the trial was not about what the scientist did to the nonprofit, then, but what he did to the court. Another way of seeing this is that Van Lent has become tangled in a carefully woven legal web. (Indeed, an appeals judge reviewing the case appears to be worried that Lopez chose to appoint one of the foundation’s lawyers to lead the prosecution, rather than a more neutral attorney representing the public interest.) Van Lent’s cleanup efforts were irresponsibly sloppy, sure; his refusal to turn over his data was, if righteous, obviously foolhardy. But the foundation based its request for an injunction on the controversial idea that its science constituted trade secrets, an idea that has not been tested in court.

Stuart Pimm, who served as a character witness for Van Lent, finds this alarming. Sure, he said, a tech company might need to protect the discoveries that underlie its products—but that need signals that it’s engaged in business, not true science. Ultimately, Pimm sees the case as bigger than the Everglades: It’s “about whether people who find science discomforting” can try to silence it. If we’re going to restore the Everglades—or fix up nature anywhere—“then we need the best science,” he said. “And Tom was doing the best science.”

Throughout our exchanges, Weisblum put more emphasis on Van Lent’s acts of deletion than on the allegations of stolen trade secrets. The destruction “goes against every scientist’s ethic of preserving data for future reference,” she said, suggesting it was more consequential than the foundation’s decision to remove Van Lent’s FAQ from its website six years earlier. But even if the case is just a personnel matter, the foundation’s scorched-earth approach appears vindictive—and has opened up the nonprofit to valid criticisms. Paul Tudor Jones once told a journalist that the foundation was “100% committed to scientific truth and nothing else.” By taking down Van Lent’s paper, the foundation has demonstrated that it has other commitments, too. Pimm worries that its example might encourage cynical politicians, especially as the climate crisis becomes increasingly hard to deny. They, too, will pursue the easy solutions, promoting new infrastructure, claiming they’re addressing the problem—then quash any research that might suggest they’re not doing enough.

In December 2023, citing Van Lent’s unwillingness to apologize, Lopez imposed a 10-day jail sentence. Van Lent, who had already been ordered to pay some of the foundation’s legal fees, has filed for bankruptcy and is appealing the decision. “I can’t apologize for something I didn’t do,” he told a journalist a few weeks later, when, unbowed, he flew to Miami to attend an annual Everglades conference.

That conference was a reminder that the long project to restore the Everglades continued, as did the politicking—often hand in hand. In January, just a few weeks after Van Lent’s sentencing, officials gathered on a dusty levee at the edge of the Everglades Agricultural Area; the state was ready to unleash water into the treatment area. Eikenberg was there, of course, dressed in a polo shirt; a Biden official attended the ceremony, too. “America’s Everglades is a unifying issue,” the foundation declared in a press release, announcing its plan to fund a series of radio and television ads that would “educate the public” about this vital new project.

The event’s emcee lauded Ron DeSantis, who was making his first public appearance after shelving his presidential campaign. “It’s his direction we follow, it’s his vision that we execute,” he said, “and it’s a big vision.” This man-made marsh was supposed to be an example. At 6,500 acres, the emcee noted, it was bigger than all Florida’s theme parks combined. He did not mention the science that suggested that DeSantis’s vision might need to be far bigger still. The sky was overcast—a reminder that the spring rains were coming. Lake Okeechobee was too full already, so it was clear that this year, once more, the canals would open. Soon enough, anyone flying over Florida could see the signs of one more crisis: electric-green ribbons of algae-choked water, bound for the coast.

*This article has been updated to clarify that the Everglades Trust denies paying Eric Eikenberg, and that some of the files Tom Van Lent deleted were created by other scientists.

Help us keep digging!

FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers. Please consider making a donation to support our work.

Cancel monthly donations anytime.

Make a Donation