This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.
By Amy Green, Inside Climate News
ORLANDO, Fla. — In the two decades since one of the most ambitious attempts at ecological restoration in human history became law, Tom Van Lent has built a reputation as a leading scientist in the effort to save the Florida Everglades.
His research has delved into almost every issue to arise from the $21 billion restoration effort, from litigation over water quality to water management operations to development concerns. Van Lent is perhaps best known, though, for his clear and easy way of communicating highly complex technical concepts, sometimes in the face of considerable opposition, to decision-makers and their constituents: most notably, the more than 8 million Floridians who depend on the treasured and troubled wetlands as their primary source of drinking water.
“After working on the Everglades for 42 years, I often found that the complexity is just used to hide the simple truth,” said Van Lent, who is now a science adviser to the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Everglades. “There are simple truths, and it is important to keep focused on the central, the main thing, the central point, and complexity is often distracting.”
Now, Van Lent’s science — and his determination to convey scientific findings as he sees fit — are at the heart of a bitter legal battle with his former employer, the Everglades Foundation, where he worked for 17 years, including as chief scientist.
In a civil complaint, the foundation accuses Van Lent of stealing “trade secrets” and destroying files when he left the organization in February 2022, potentially to enrich himself or for the benefit of Friends of the Everglades, where he is now a paid contractor. The foundation says the “trade secrets” include internal memos and reports, white papers and confidential presentations related to the spectrum of issues on which Van Lent worked while at the foundation. Van Lent denies the allegations.
The parties agreed to a settlement last September and an injunction barring Van Lent from disclosing confidential information and ordering him to return the materials. But a few weeks later, the foundation accused Van Lent of violating the injunction. In May, a circuit judge sided with the foundation and found him guilty of indirect criminal contempt. A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled; Van Lent could face penalties ranging from a nominal fine to incarceration. He plans to appeal the ruling.
The litigation has shocked the otherwise tight-knit Everglades advocacy community and exposed a long-running tension between science and politics in the massive restoration effort. Some advocates are asking whether the “trade secrets” involve scientific findings that in principle should be public.
“What does the Everglades Foundation want to keep secret?” said Stuart Pimm, a specialist in endangered species at Duke University whose research has included the habitat of the Everglades’ Cape Sable seaside sparrow. ”Because that is not how science works.”
The dispute appears to stem in part from a controversial plan for a reservoir described by Gov. Ron DeSantis, among others, as “the crown jewel of Everglades restoration.”
The 16-square-mile reservoir would be the largest of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever constructed in the United States, and some advocacy groups have raised concerns about its design, which they say does not meet restoration requirements. The foundation, closely aligned with DeSantis, a 2024 GOP presidential candidate, supports the reservoir.
After leaving the foundation to work with Friends of the Everglades, Van Lent tweeted about his new opportunity with a group that he said “put facts over politics.” He told Inside Climate News the tweet might have prompted the lawsuit. The foundation said the only motivation of the litigation was to recover the materials that it contends Van Lent downloaded and destroyed.
“The Everglades Foundation has made the reservoir the centerpiece of their public relations and their political efforts,” Van Lent said. “So anyone who potentially gets in the way, of course, is a potential target.”
“The role of the scientist should be to articulate the facts, whatever they are, so that people out there can make decisions,” he said. “There are other inputs besides science: politics, law, economics. There are all kinds of things that go into a solution, and science isn’t the only factor. Politics is definitely one of those input areas, and that is often where there is a rub.”
An ecosystem reshaped by politics
To appreciate this tension between science and politics in the restoration effort, it is important to understand that the Everglades, poetically known as the river of grass, no longer flows freely but has been reshaped by politics and sustained by the science and engineering of some of the most complex water management infrastructure in the world.
Science and politics function here like competing forces directing the flow of water through some 2,200 miles of canals, 2,100 miles of levees and berms, 84 pump stations and 778 water control structures, which together serve as life support for a watershed that once spanned much of the peninsula but has been drained to a remnant of its former self.
Everglades restoration involves a series of landscape-scale projects, like the reservoir, intended to revive key historic attributes of the Everglades, especially water quality, storage and flow. The watershed begins in central Florida with the headwaters of the Kissimmee River and includes Lake Okeechobee, sawgrass marshes to the south and Florida Bay, at the peninsula’s southernmost tip.
“Every Tuesday at 11 a.m. we sit down with the water managers, the engineers and the scientists, and we start all the way at the top of the river, and we discuss what’s going on hydrologically and environmentally, and the scientists make recommendations for water management,” said Fred Sklar, director of the South Florida Water Management District’s Everglades Systems Assessment Section, a group of scientists studying the restoration’s implications and helping to guide water managers’ decisions on where and how the water should flow.
“We come to an agreement on how to move the water around and how to make sure that things stay healthy or get better.”
The South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing the restoration, is not a political organization. But like its federal partner the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it operates under statutes and regulations dictated by elected leaders who are beholden to stakeholders — from powerful developers and agricultural interests to environmental groups to Florida citizens.
“It boils down to the practical reality that Florida was drained to accommodate development and agriculture,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades. “Where those tensions exist, it’s usually because the restoration effort would require some sort of sacrifice by those two forces: development or agriculture.”
This tension between science and politics can be traced to the beginnings of Everglades restoration and a federal lawsuit filed against the state in 1988 over water quality problems in Everglades National Park and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The litigation would lead to a consent decree and restoration plan in the early 1990s that environmental groups said did not go far enough.
Discord, for instance, over a water quality standard and whether polluters were paying their fair share toward the effort would eventually help lead to a monumental federal-state restoration plan that became law in 2000 and remains in progress today.
The turmoil would also prompt a wealthy Orlando developer, George Barley, and a billionaire Wall Street investor, Paul Tudor Jones II, best friends determined to save their beloved fishing spot in Florida Bay, to establish an organization in 1993 that could add more science to the political debate: the Everglades Foundation. Van Lent joined in 2005 as its first scientist.
“I think a lot of people felt left out because the process was very — and rightly so — very scientifically based, and understanding all that takes an expert,” Van Lent said. “They wanted help understanding what the agencies were saying. They also wanted, I think, objective assessments to help understand what the facts actually were, and that was my initial role.”
At the time, Van Lent was already highly regarded, having begun his career at the South Florida Water Management District. He later left the water management district and joined Everglades National Park, where his research coincided with the implementation of the massive restoration plan in 2000.
“When Tom went to the Everglades Foundation, I thought, ‘Fantastic,’” said Pimm, the endangered species specialist at Duke University. “They got the best hydrologist in the Everglades going to work for them.”
At the foundation, Van Lent provided scientific analysis and recommendations for the organization and other groups that lacked a science staff, informing the Everglades advocacy community’s positions on proposals made by elected leaders and government agencies. Some of his recommendations were incorporated into major restoration projects.
In time the foundation grew, and so did its influence. When Gov. Charlie Crist announced a $1.75 billion plan in 2008 to buy out the farming and processing corporation U.S. Sugar and devote the land to Everglades restoration, the news came as a shock to virtually everyone in the advocacy community except the foundation, which had been involved in the negotiations for months. The deal was later downsized when the U.S. economy collapsed into a recession, among other reasons.
Today the foundation is well connected and well funded. Its board of directors includes Jimmy Buffett and Jack Nicklaus, and its chief executive is Eric Eikenberg, a seasoned political strategist who had been chief of staff for E. Clay Shaw, Jr., a Republican who served in Congress from 2005 to 2007, and then for Crist, a Republican who later switched his party affiliation to Democrat. Crist ran again for governor last year but lost to the Republican incumbent, DeSantis.
Jones, who ranks No. 299 on Forbes’ 2023 list of richest Americans with a net worth of $7.5 billion, remains an active supporter of the foundation. Barley died in 1995 in a plane crash while on his way to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the future of the Everglades, leaving his widow, Mary Barley, to carry on the cause.
The Everglades Foundation hosts an annual fundraiser at The Breakers, the exclusive Palm Beach resort. This year Lionel Richie performed, and Billy Joel and his wife, Alexis, were honorary chairman and chairwoman of the event. The foundation’s annual operating budget exceeds $10 million, and its staff of 31 includes seven full-time scientists. The organization also supports Everglades research at Florida International University and the University of Miami.
The foundation is at the forefront of every major issue involving the Everglades, including the controversial plan for the reservoir supported by DeSantis.
In the governor’s seat, a reservoir booster
DeSantis served in Congress from 2013 to 2018 and was responsible for authorizing Everglades restoration projects as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He met multiple times with foundation representatives who “walked him through the importance of the projects,” said Eikenberg, who was present for the meetings.
“He understood the economic value of it and the importance to the Florida economy,” said Eikenberg, who has led the foundation as chief executive since 2012.
DeSantis’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign coincided with a statewide outbreak of toxic algae that sickened Floridians and left wildlife belly-up. Among his contributors was Jones, who gave $250,000 to his political action committee. After taking office, DeSantis took several steps to address the water quality problems, including investing millions of dollars in state funds in Everglades restoration. When DeSantis in 2019 dismissed the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District, which at the time was seen as favoring polluters, the foundation was ready to help with recommendations for replacements.
The governor also pushed for the reservoir, a project aimed at cleaning and conveying more water south, where the so-called river of grass once flowed. But the foundation and other advocacy groups were already raising concerns about proposals for the reservoir’s design. In 2018, Eikenberg and Van Lent, seemingly united, said publicly that the proposals did not include enough engineered wetlands to clean the water and that the state should pursue the possibility of obtaining more acreage from landowners, politically powerful sugar growers.
Eventually the proposals moved forward, and the advocacy groups continued to raise concerns—but not the foundation. The groups maintained that the reservoir did not meet restoration requirements because it would not convey enough water south or clean the water to established standards. They also said the 23-foot depth of the reservoir was excessive and would provide another place for toxic blooms to flourish, threatening human health and wildlife.
Environmental campaigners also argued that the designs had failed to factor in climate change and that the process had been too rushed to fully include the public. They called for acquiring more land from area landowners, too.
Inside the foundation, the working relationship between Eikenberg and Van Lent was unraveling. Court documents cite testimony by a foundation employee who described a disagreement back in 2015 or 2016 in which the scientist “was screaming at Mr. Eikenberg to the point that Mr. Eikenberg felt like he may be assaulted.”
In 2020 Van Lent was moved to a non-leadership position after Eikenberg “no longer felt he could trust Dr. Van Lent to speak on behalf of the foundation,” according to the documents. Van Lent told Inside Climate News that under Eikenberg’s 11-year leadership, the foundation had undergone a “transformation,” which was why he left.
“One of the things Eric said—there is science, and there is political science, and political science trumps science,” Van Lent said. “That led to a lot of tension because what Eric wanted was basically to conform the facts to the message, which was support for the reservoir.
“And my view is, I can’t endorse or not endorse the reservoir,” he said. “I just have to give you the facts, and you have to do whatever you can with that.”
In an interview with Inside Climate News, Eikenberg declined to comment directly on Van Lent. He said the foundation was not a political organization but added, “Scientific work is not going to restore the Everglades.”
“You have to operate within a political reality, and the political science is just as important as the environmental science,” he said. “And the narrative that it’s too political? It’s been political since day one.”
After leaving the foundation in February 2022, Van Lent joined Friends of the Everglades, initially serving as an unpaid adviser and later as a paid contractor. Then the foundation sued him in April 2022, accusing him of a “secret campaign of theft and destruction of sensitive foundation materials.”
“He copied hundreds of files and folders containing the foundation’s confidential and proprietary information and trade secrets, including hundreds of gigabytes of data, onto his personal hard drives to take with him, without the foundation’s permission and in violation of his employment obligations to the foundation,” the organization said in its complaint. “He also then destroyed hundreds of gigabytes of the foundation’s data, including thousands of files and folders containing the foundation’s copies of proprietary scientific models and related data, and copies of the work product the foundation had employed him to create.”
Van Lent denies stealing or destroying “trade secrets.”
“I don’t know what exactly they’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t have any of their information.”
“You back up your computer,’’ Van Lent said. “The original backup had a mix of personal files and Everglades Foundation files. I made a copy of the backup, deleted all the personal information files and sent the Everglades Foundation all of their files from the backup. I then took that backup and then on my personal copy deleted all the Everglades Foundation files.”
The foundation said in its complaint that it sued only after reaching out to Van Lent and asking that he return the materials, which it maintains he failed to do. After it accused him of violating the injunction, Van Lent pleaded not guilty, and a trial was held on May 10-11. Van Lent was the only witness who testified on his behalf.
The foundation had hired a forensic investigator to analyze his devices, including his work laptop and two external hard drives, and the evidence was presented in court. In his final judgment, issued on May 25, Judge Carlos Lopez cited evidence indicating that Van Lent had deleted hundreds of thousands of files from a laptop after the injunction was issued.
The judge also said there were multiple times when he felt that the scientist’s testimony was not credible. “Dr. Van Lent clearly intended to take the foundation’s materials with him for use in the future and he intentionally deprived the foundation of the same materials so they could not be used in a manner he disagreed with,” Lopez wrote.
As the legal process unfolded, DeSantis was campaigning for re-election and handily won in November, with Jones contributing another $200,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. In January, an executive order issued by the governor called for, among other things, the disbursement of $3.5 billion over four years for the Everglades and water resources, the highest level of funding in state history, the governor said. In June he signed a state budget that included $1.6 billion for the Everglades and water quality.
In February, construction began on the 23-foot-deep reservoir without many of the concerns raised by the advocacy groups having been addressed. The $3.9 billion project includes the reservoir and an engineered wetland and is scheduled to be completed in 2030.
In a statement, the foundation said it began supporting the reservoir project as framed after the state was able to ensure that the water stored would be treated according to restoration standards. And it predicts that the benefits will ripple across the watershed, which spans central and south Florida. Yet the concerns about water quality, also raised by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in a November report, persist.
A fear for science itself
Many environmental advocacy groups have voiced support for Van Lent. They say the litigation distracts from the larger mission of Everglades restoration and reflects poorly on the community of groups and agencies involved in the effort.
“The Tom Van Lent situation is crazy, right? It’s crazy,” said Cris Costello, senior organizing manager at the Sierra Club in Florida.
The groups say the litigation could have a chilling effect on other Everglades science, and they worry about whether the “trade secrets” at the heart of the dispute involve scientific findings that are important to the restoration, a publicly funded effort.
Pimm, the endangered species specialist at Duke University, predicts that the legal battle will hurt the foundation’s reputation as a science-based nonprofit. “The way science works is that you share your scientific observations, and what seems to be at the heart of this is an effort to stop Tom from sharing,” he said.
Eikenberg says the litigation was not politically motivated or connected with DeSantis and that the court documents speak for themselves. And he maintains that the foundation’s reputation will not be damaged by the conflict.
“The expertise at the Everglades Foundation has remained constant,” he said. “The foundation has remained committed to ensuring that that independent scientific research remains available, not just to government agencies but to our partners.”
Friends of the Everglades released a statement saying that Van Lent has never conveyed confidential information about the foundation to his new employer.
“Tom has major concerns about this reservoir project, and he has a lot of credibility and experience to debunk it and to cast doubt on it,” said Samples, the group’s executive director. “I don’t know if that’s what’s driving the lawsuit, but I do know that those are facts.”
Van Lent said he feels that the foundation is trying to isolate him. “The whole point, this has been an exercise in intimidation,” he said. “I think they are trying to marginalize me, attack me, smear me.”
For as long as he can remember, Van Lent says, he wanted to be a civil engineer, like his dad. He grew up in South Dakota but was always drawn to the water. One of his earliest memories is of damming the storm sewers during the spring snowmelt and diverting the water into the street where he lived.
“I got into a lot of trouble for that,” he said.
After college, he got the job at the South Florida Water Management District and fell in love with the Everglades. Today, at Friends of the Everglades, he continues to analyze restoration proposals and share the findings with other groups, although many are assembling their own science staffs.
“Scientific disagreements—they happen all the time, and that is a healthy thing, actually, because you’re forced to do more investigation and get data,” Van Lent said. “It’s how the scientific process moves forward, and so those things happen all the time. It’s how we learn.’’
“If you want to do Everglades restoration and not just study it, you have to keep at it. You have to stand up,” he added. “You have to speak out, and other than that there is no other way forward. And it’s not always very positive and not easy, as I’m finding out. But you have to do it.”
Amy Green is the author of “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar,” about the Everglades restoration advocates George and Mary Barley.