DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties of Florida
A Special Tribute To Richard L Coleman
Explore, Enjoy and Protect The Planet
The evening about ten years ago that I first met Richard Coleman has proved to be an event of extreme good fortune to me.
After an absence from the State of more than 50 years, I had just returned to the county of my birth but rapidly was becoming disenchanted by the paucity of people who seemed to share my love of the outdoors and all things there unto pertaining. Only a few weeks earlier, I had expressed this feeling at a dinner party and the guest on my left asked If I had ever met Richard Coleman who he felt was sure be my “kindred spirit”. A few days later, we received an invitation to join the Colemans at their annual midwinter “pot luck” dinner for the Sierra Club and other friends.
We were met at the door of the Swamp Cabin by the lady of the house, the lovely Miss Frances, and her chief of security, Pud the golden retriever. We passed the “sniff test” carefully administered by security and entered a house teeming with small groups of folk passionately discussing a wide variety of unusual topics ranging from ‘the number of bird species just counted in some nearby marsh’ and ‘what are we going to do about gypsum stacks near Mulberry’ to other issues that we could not begin to comprehend. Each group seemed to be totally oblivious of the other groups and to any strangers in their midst. Acronyms such as DEP, DER, FIPR, COMPPLAN and FLEXCOM filled the air like so many insects of the night circling a candle. Billye and I found ourselves wondering what the native tongue of these folks might be to cause them to use so much incomprehensible verbiage.
Eventually, we worked our way to a rear deck, where wine, beer and other potables flowed and where a turkey was being deep fried. Here we met our host, a huge bear of a man with a booming voice and eyes which twinkled especially when in the presence of pretty ladies. Here, the conversation seemed more conventional and understandable with descriptions of yesterday’s fishing trip and the hog hunt planned for tomorrow. I realized that at last I had tumbled into the mecca that I had been seeking.
Over the ensuing years, my friendship with Richard deepened to the point that his untimely death has left a void that may never be filled completely. As that chance dinner companion a decade ago had predicted, Richard and I were, in fact, kindred spirits and in complete agreement on every substantial issue from religion and politics through protection of the environment and the admiration of feminine pulchritude.
In my view, Richard epitomized the type of conservationist that could and did have significant impact. He was passionate and capable of being dogged in his pursuit of what he felt to be right while at the same time being realistic and capable of understanding the other side’s point of view. Thus he gained the respect of even those who opposed his position . He was willing to accept sustainable consumption of natural resources and worked to insure this was done in environmentally friendly ways.
Aside from recent delightful and productive fishing trips and scallop dives, my last great endeavor with Richard was the design, construction and distribution of Wood Duck nesting boxes. Richard was the instigator of this activity and together we constructed approximately fifty of these nesting boxes. All have been sold with the net proceeds going to the Florida Sierra Club, Polk Group. We know that many of these nests were used this breeding season although at least one occupant was a screech owl.
I plan to resume nest box construction in December 30 to 45 days before the next nesting season begins. I hope that others will join me in producing up to 100 new boxes in a commemorative edition that will bear the imprint of the Florida Sierra Club, Polk Group and a small plaque reading “In Memory, Richard L. Coleman 1944 - 2003. I can think of no better tribute to Richard’s memory than to have a number of these nests appropriately placed in the Kissimmee River which he loved so deeply .
Richard Co1eman's conservation work spanned a third of a century, starting and ending in the wetlands of Lake Hatchineha. Over 34 years, he helped define what it means to be a Florida environmentalist.
My name is Julie Morris. I am an environmentalist and a friend of Richard Coleman's.
Back in the 70's, no one used the word mentor. Even so, Richard was my mentor, and along with Frances, set me on my activist path. I met Richard when I was tagging along with my husband to state Sierra Club meetings. First impression: he was fierce and fair, and a little scary. Richard was always scanning for talent, and I was one of many here today whom he encouraged.
Taking a page out of John Muir's book, Richard and Frances would arrange outings and invite a mix of people (activists, songwriters, politicians, land managers) for a fun day with a conservation message. Like, "Let's continue restoring these marshes on Lake Kissimmee". We'd all go back to the Swamp Cabin for good food and aftertalk. Wrapped in the feelings and fellowship of the day, we would all go home to work the Issue.
Richard Coleman was simultaneously a Scientist, a Sportsman, and an Environmentalist. Few people embody all three of these traits and Richard moved with credibility and respect in all three circles. Richard brought all three together, forming teams for conservation. Twenty-five years ago, Richard created the annual summit of environmental and sportsman's groups so we could get our ducks in a row prior to each legislative session. Big Growth and Big Sugar lose sleep trying to figure out how to splinter this powerful coalition.
That vision, that environmentalists, fishermen and sportsmen must work together to protect and restore wild Florida, guided me through my two terms on the state's fish and wildlife commission.
Richard was a big bear of a man and he roamed a big territory in Central Florida. He loved to fight and kill big fish, loved to dive for scallops, loved to hunt deer, loved boats of all kinds, thrived on wildlife watching, and immersed himself in wild Florida.
He turned down chances to work on national and multi-state issues, and committed himself to the conservation of his home territory. There was plenty to be done in Imperial Polk County. Others were defeated and angry about the destruction of the Kissimmee River by the Army Corps of Engineers. Instead of being angry, Richard envisioned a restored river. He persevered, calling on his flock of trainees to pitch in and before too long Kissimmee River Restoration was a national issue supported by the Everglades Coalition. Not long after, the policy makers and budget writers turned a corner, embracing Richard's vision of a restored, meandering Kissimmee River. And the restoration began.
Richard only lived two-thirds of his potential years, and was recognized for major accomplishments at a younger age than many. Sierra gave him the "Florida Chapter Medal". Florida Wildlife Federation named him "Conservationist of the Year." The Florida Lake Management Society presented him the "Marjorie Harris Carr Award." The Daughters of the American Revolution awarded him their "Outstanding Achievement Medal". Three different Governors appointed Richard to panels advising the state on ordinary high water, Kissimmee River, Green Swamp, Everglades and phosphate mining.
It's my sense that Richard didn't seek approbation, awards and recognition. For him the joy was in the work itself and the tangible gains for wild Florida. He was content being the "Swamp Cabin Administrator". We're still not sure what a Swamp Cabin Administrator is. But we know there was only one.
Those of us trained by Richard look to science, think critically, scan for new talent, seek surprising coalitions, see that amazing things are possible, and knuckle down for the long campaign. We always return to wild Florida for inspiration and motivation.
When we miss Richard and feel lonely, we can see Richard's legacy living in the curling meanders and flooded marshes of the restored Kissimmee River.
When we miss Richard and feel lonely, we can watch Richard's legacy thrive as pieces of the Peace Valley integrated habitat network click into place.
We will remember Richard when we float any of the four rivers that arise in the Green Swamp, and when we tap that limestone cistern, the Floridan, recharged by seepage through the rural landscape of the Green Swamp.
We will see Richard's legacy in the sandy bottoms and diverse marshes rimming the restored lakes in the Kissimmee chain.
We will carry Richard's legacy within us as we testify, strategize, and explore, working against the odds to conserve and restore wild Florida.
Richard has left us and his leaving is unbearable. But he has left us better people. And he has left us a better place. And we are profoundly grateful.
Richard Coleman. He was a wonderful man who shared with me a world that I didn’t even realize existed.
When Richard pulled up with the airboat in tow, he was so happy to be going to do what he loved. On the way to the river we stopped at a part shop - Richard had made a promise to take something over there and had forgotten it, he wanted to make sure that the man was not waiting around just for him. Richard was considerate. Richard was kind. Richard thought so much of all his friends.
We got to the river. There was a trail that my dad and I had both noticed the last time we went, and we both wanted to go down it. On Friday we did. At another point Richard said that we were in a place that he hadn’t totally explored himself. He asked if it was ok for us to do some exploring, teasing that we might have to crawl in four feet of muck with the alligators. Of course we chose to explore. Richard was curious to see this little side part of the river. He told us about the plants growing there. Then we continued on our way. We saw ducks and birds and laughed at all the cows. We stopped for lunch and we all enjoyed the tuna and egg salad sandwiches my mom had made for us. Richard offered us cigars, hehe, saying that there were only 3 and so perhaps he’d have to be the polite host, and I teased him back saying that there was at least one, probably two or even three, people on that boat who were happy to let him have his cigar! Where we stopped for lunch I noticed some eggs on the back of a stump. I was curious if they were eggs or lichen, and got down to get a closer look. Richard explained to me how they were apple snails, eaten by kites, a certain kind of bird on the river. It was pretty cool.
We saw the most beautiful butterflies that day. We had stopped in a patch of purple flowers - Richard of course knew the name of those flowers! - and I wanted to get some close-up pictures. Richard saw a butterfly far off and was teasing me about having good eyesight and being able to see from 50 yards off whether or not the butterfly had the blue markings of the female. At the time I didn’t even really know which butterfly he was talking about, but I joked back to him. We moved closer and it was a female. It was just beautiful. Nature is wonderful and Richard did so much to share it and protect it.
It seems like a cliché to say that he died on his river. But it’s true. He also died while trying to save all our lives. For that we are truly blessed and eternally grateful. The next time we smell a cigar, we’ll all think of Richard.
LARGER THAN LIFE
I am hesitant about writing this, for two reasons. First, because I remain stunned by the news of Richard Coleman's death. Second, because I am powerless to improve on the beautiful eulogies that have already been offered. But no native Central Floridian, who drinks from the aquifer protected by the Green Swamp, whose personal vision of paradise is the great serene tea-colored lakes of the Kissimmee Valley, can in good conscience let him pass unacknowledged.
Richard Coleman did not suffer fools. He detested hypocrisy. The engineer in him went ballistic over poorly-reasoned arguments sustained by insufficient (or no) data. He was not falsely modest, either about the importance of his causes or the stunning capability that he devoted to them. He was ebullient, exasperating, impatient ... in a word, overwhelming. There were times I felt, deservedly, his barbs, and it stung, because I wanted so much to please him and earn his respect.
There was another side, however, which was not always on view. The last time I saw Richard was on his beloved airboat in the same marshes where he was later to lose his life. He fussed endlessly with the motor, smoked a cigar or two, and pointed out the magnificent (a flying caracara) and the insignificant (fish larvae) with equal admiration. We did not talk much that day and yet it seems we communicated more than in all our encounters before that. He was generous to a fault, kind, and even tender-hearted. As more than one of his eulogists observed, he was larger than life, and I loved him.
RICHARD - "VENTURING"
The Wild Food Dinner: We got the brainy idea to go out into the wilds of greater Winter Haven and harvest the natural bounty thereof for a fabulous dinner for friends. We found out real quick that collecting lotus root is not a job for lightweights. Richard, the hulk, could shuffle around in a retention pond, loosen the roots, and pull them up easily with his toes! I just bobbed around like a cork. Cattails were harvested from Lake Pansy. The wild food dinner at the Swamp Cabin was a success - the dubious diners enjoyed the unusual fair. We had lotus root salad, steamed cattails, raw cattail shoots, and other odd edibles along with wild hog and deer.
Survival Camping: We were gonna be tough! Richard, his daughter Rachelle and I decided to spend a couple of days engaged in “survival camping” at what is now the Disney Wilderness Preserve. We accepted Richard’s desire to take along a few potatoes “just in case”, but Rachelle and I were really amused when he had to stop and buy wine coolers for the trip. He was successful in catching our dinner wade fishing in Lake Russell even though an alligator kept trying to steal the fish off his stringer. The potatoes went well with the veggies and fruit we found, but the main thing we learned is that after 2 days in the woods you smell so bad the bugs won’t bite you any more.
Thieving Sharks!: The last full day of a trip to the Abacos we were faced with the specter of canned ham for dinner - horrors! Into the water we plunged to catch fresh fish - Richard with a Hawaiian sling to kill them, me with diving bags to hold them. Richard managed to snag about a half dozen fish and handed me the bag to hold while he tried to catch “just a couple more” that were lurking about hundred feet away. As soon as Richard turned away from me, the bag of bleeding, screaming fish caught the attention of a 6 foot lemon shark. My bellowing through a mask and snorkel didn’t carry through the water. I waved my arms, kicked my finned feet and continued to holler, but Richard didn’t see or hear me and the shark wasn’t taking NO for an answer.........so reluctantly I let the shark take the bag from my hand. When Richard swam back, I told him what had transpired and pointed to where the shark was now trying to open the bag with the help of a couple of friends. "Canned ham be damned" he said, "let’s go get ‘em". The size and speed of Richard plus me in tow must have impressed the sharks, because they offered no resistance against our retrieval.......but they did follow us at high speed back to the dinghy! The fried fish were particularly good that night.
The Fisheating Creek Venture: Every weekend of October of 1994 was devoted to clearing approximately 28 miles of creek of the water hyacinths that clogged it and its narrow lakes. Our objective was for the creek to be fully navigable for the judge presiding over the sovereign lands lawsuit filed against Lykes Brothers.......just in case he wanted to take a boat ride. Traveling in his small airboat, Richard, myself and Smiley Hendry (self- proclaimed river rat and creek defender) engaged in a war of aquatic weed control armed with machetes, chain saws and lots of herbicides.
We would work all day, and sometimes into the night. One night it got so dark we couldn’t figure out exactly where we were. This was a big problem because we were running out of fuel and had been unable to locate a gas tank that an accomplice had stashed for us in the woods. We couldn’t find the creek channel either, so we had to quit and walk out. The airboat battery attached to a frog light carried on our heads illuminated our wade through chin deep water to shore. We kept hoping the gators weren’t hungry or the moccasins particularly amorous. We came ashore at a boys reformatory around 11PM and approached the guarded facility with caution - me calling “hello” in my best feminine voice (we reasoned that guards would be less likely to shoot a woman). We were taken to an office where we were able to phone an ally to come pick us up. The administrator also allowed us to come back on the property to fuel the boat and resume our "pleasure trip" the next morning.
We thought we were home free until we reached the last 2 lakes at the bottom of the run. These lakes turned out to be the major bottle-necks for hyacinth jams. The hyacinths were so thick that Smiley and I rolled over them to the trees to sit while Richard ran the boat over the first lake several times to break them up enough that we could re-board and ride through. The second lake was even worse. The matted layers of dead plants had created floating 3 foot wide ropes.....hyacinth islands teaming with tiny baby alligators and turtles. We were determined to get through and spray a path at the same time. Smiley rolled to shore to retrieve a johnboat hidden downstream to take us out after we cut through this last lake. Richard and I quickly found ourselves locked in the grip of hyacinths packed so tightly we could only move a yard at a time before getting stuck again. We ended up in the dark with the aid of a spotlight, hacking, chopping, pushing and stomping the hyacinths down with our feet over the boat rim.......3 feet at a time until 2AM when we reached a knob of dry ground to beach the boat. We left it there and collapsed into Smiley’s little boat. It took another hour to pole out to where the truck was parked, but our job was done!
The case of Florida versus Lykes regarding Fisheating Creek was settled in May of 1999. Fisheating Creek was declared a public waterway and the case set a major precedent both legally and politically, which will serve to protect as many as 7,000 miles of other Florida rivers and lakes. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney, David Guest, stated that the people of Florida were "...awarded the entire river bed" from the Highlands county line to Lake Okeechobee for no monetary consideration having to be paid to Lykes Brothers (9,000 acres). The people of Florida bought 9,000 more acres of conservation and recreation lands along Fisheating Creek. The ruling also provided for a 42,000-acre conservation easement to provide a huge buffer around the creek and to protect its streams and swamps.
We were very proud to play a part in the fight to preserve this ecological jewel for Florida.
CONFIDENCE AND PERSEVERANCE
"And wherever the river goes, every living creature which swarms will live and there will be very many fish .... so everything will live where the river goes." --Ezekiel 47:9
Some conservationists tend to timidly approach the power structure, hat in hand.
Richard Coleman would have none of that.
He knew there were resources worth protecting, plenty of facts to justify the protection and grassroots support for action. He knew the people were ahead of the suits.
He used the moral courage of his convictions, an intimidating physical presence that impressed strangers more than friends and a command of the facts to get things done.
If the Green Swamp is better protected, the Kissimmee River floodplain is again full of water and wildlife, boaters can travel freely on rivers and creeks and local, state and federal officials are doing more to clean up lakes, rivers and bays and keep them that way, you can thank Richard.
He didn't do it alone and he didn't do it immediately. He knew the victories would not be swift or easy, but he knew he was right and would win.
Richard's life was about water and wildlife, which is the essence of Florida, and about confidence and perseverance, which is the essence of admirable endeavors and admirable people.
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