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Longtime Everglades advocate Mike Collins dies in plane crash

Image of the Florida Bay off Tavernier
Jenny Staletovich
Taking former Gov. Jeb Bush fishing off Islamorada helped convince him to support Everglades restoration.

Mike Collins, a former South Florida Water Management District governing board member who abandoned Wall Street to become a fishing guide and eventually helped forge one of the largest environmental restoration projects in U.S. history, died this week.

Collins died Wednesday when the Piper single-engine plane he was piloting crashed in north Georgia. He was 71.

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Armed with a fishing guide’s sensibility, Collins pulled no punches. He remained passionate about Everglades restoration, even a decade after he left the governing board he chaired when the landmark $8 billion restoration blueprint was passed in 2000. Collins also chaired the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, replacing his friend George Barley, who also died in a plane crash in 1995.

mikecollins irela pic.JPG
Courtesy Irela Bagué
Mike Collins, far right, pictured with, from left to right, attorney Santiago Echemendia, Miami-Dade County Chief Bay Officer Irela Bagué and former governing board member Nicolás J. Gutiérrez.

He was also commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, a post that he used to connect the ailing bay to woeful conditions miles away in Central Florida.

“Mike had the ultimate weapon. He was able to fish people,” said Allison DeFoor, a sixth generation Conch who met Collins when he was 28 and moved to Islamorada to become a newly elected judge. “You could make all the public policy arguments in the world, but nothing is more powerful than getting somebody out into Florida Bay.”

DeFoor, now an Episcopal priest in Jacksonville, said Collins relished having a captive audience for a day. That included former Gov. Jeb Bush, who later became DeFoor’s boss as Everglades czar.

“If you come back from that unconverted, you will never be converted,” he said.

Collins decided to leave Wall Street after growing frustrated with the relentless pace, DeFoor said.

“He was a young up and coming Fordham graduate, clawing his way up on Wall Street,” he said. “He just woke up one February, as he told it to me, and said 'boy, this is crap.'”

Collins managed to crack the tight-knit community of guides, a career that was often generational and certainly cantankerous, to become commodore of the guides association.

After Bush lost his first run for governor in 1994, Collins, Barley, the head of Audubon Florida and a host of longtime Florida conservationists, convinced Bush that he’d never win without taking a stand on environmental issues. And the biggest, most intractable, was repairing the Everglades.

Marshes had increasingly become more polluted and choked by cattails fueled by run-off from sugarcane fields. In the Keys, flood control had left Florida Bay vulnerable, so when a drought hit, miles of seagrass began dying in 1987. Eventually 94 square miles of meadows died, causing the bay to crash.

“We got together and said we got to get the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the party pulled back and Mike’s job was to persuade Jeb,” DeFoor said.

In 1995, Collins became chair of the sanctuary advisory council and in 1999 was appointed to the water management district’s governing board, chairing the board until 2001. He remained on the board until 2010.

As he dove deeper into politics, his brusque style sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. Collins also never shied away from asserting his view of events. And his defense of the sugar industry, who he helped convince to support restoration, drew criticism.

Critics believed the version of restoration he helped craft also caved too much to industry and deferred too little to nature.

But DeFoor defended their efforts to extract a deal that continues to provide a road map for restoration.

“When we started this thing, people had been at each other's throats for over a decade. It was very complex and had multiple layers of governments — state, federal and local — to sovereign Indian nations,” he said.

“I said going in we’ll have a picture of [Florida Crystals vice president] Pepe Fanjul holding hands with Charles Lee from the Audubon Society by the end,” said DeFoor. “I can’t say what Gov. Bush said to that, because it’s not printable. But let’s put it this way. I have that picture on my wall.”

Through it all, Collins never let up, he said, weathering the restoration trenches as well as anyone.

“I told Mike one day ... you only have one speed and it's full speed ahead and take no prisoners,” said DeFoor. “He just was a very strong, strident leader. But he was also gracious in victory and he was gracious in defeat. He would get along as well with the sugar people as with the fishing guides.”

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.