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In fight over research, influential Everglades Foundation sues its former chief scientist

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Miami Herald archives
The Everglades Foundation, which helps set the agenda for restoration work across the Everglades, has sued its former chief scientist and accused him of stealing documents.

The influential Everglades Foundation rocked Florida’s close-knit environmental community last month when it sued its former chief scientist after he resigned to work for another, smaller Everglades nonprofit, tweeting a backhanded farewell on his final day.

“Will soon work with [Friends of the Everglades], who put facts over politics,” Tom Van Lent wrote, announcing his departure after 17 years.

Within a week, the foundation hired a California law firm that usually deals in high-stakes intellectual property cases, then paid more than $19,000 for a forensic investigator to inspect his work computer and, in the lawsuit that followed, accused Van Lent of stealing foundation research for his own financial gain.

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Van Lent is scheduled to appear in court today on a motion filed by the foundation's attorneys. They want a judge to hold him in contempt for failing to turn over documents, hard drives and other information they say he took from the foundation.

The lawsuit comes as a rare public rift among the state's environmental groups, hinting at the high stakes as Everglades restoration heads into its second decade and the price soars to $23 billion. Spending has never been higher or politics more divided, with pressure to speed up restoration in the face of climate change and a spate of devastating red tides, algae blooms and seagrass die-offs.

It also comes as work and spending increases, particularly on a $3 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee hailed by Florida’s governor as the crown jewel of restoration. The reservoir is supposed to help reduce polluted discharges repeatedly fouling the state’s wealthy coasts, where voters helped propel Gov. Ron DeSantis into office. But scientists and critics, including Van Lent’s new bosses, have raised questions about whether the 23-foot deep reservoir will be able to provide clean water.

The falling out also illustrates the power and reach wielded by the foundation. In politics, it sets the agenda for restoration activities and has the governor’s ear. The foundation also funds about a dozen other environmental nonprofits around the state and has awarded nearly $1.5 million in student grants, many to local researchers.

For this story, WLRN contacted five scientists and four declined to comment because of ties to the foundation.

“If you don't act in a certain way and take a particular policy position, the foundation can say, we're going to cut you off, which they can,” said Cris Costello, Sierra Club Florida’s senior organizing manager.

In 2018, the foundation cut off funding to Sierra and the Florida Wildlife Federation after disagreeing over how to spend billions of dollars voters approved for land conservation. The Foundation wanted to include restoration projects.

The foundation has not funded Friends of the Everglades for about a decade, said Friends executive director Eve Samples.

Costello said the lawsuit came as a surprise to people she’s talked to.

“They funded us for so long and we will be eternally grateful. But something isn't quite right. And I think this litigation perhaps is a sign of that,” she said.

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg declined to discuss the matter on the record. In a written statement, he said the foundation has “a proprietary interest in its work and related data, which it relies on to support its research as new challenges emerge.”

In the lawsuit, the Foundation said after his final day Feb. 28, Van Lent refused to provide passwords or access to iCloud accounts and servers. When the foundation retrieved a work laptop from Van Lent, who lives in Tallahassee, a few days after his final day, it had been wiped clean and reset to factory settings, the lawsuit said. The foundation also asked Van Lent to provide access to a second laptop he returned.

Over the next month, the foundation said Van Lent repeatedly failed to provide the demanded documents or access.

So early last month, the foundation’s attorneys filed a rare ex parte complaint usually reserved for emergency matters. Without waiting for a response from Van Lent or his attorney, the attorneys asked a judge to order Van Lent to comply and keep the case sealed.

WLRN obtained a copy of the sealed complaint, which was first reported by the Palm Beach Post.

Van Lent declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Mike Rayboun, who complained that the strategy was an additional attempt to smear Van Lent.

“It just lends further air that this is some incredible document destruction or we need forensic I.T. people,” Rayboun said of the strategy. “It's ridiculous, unless their objective is to make Dr. Van Lent look like a villain — to bully, harass, and basically discourage him from going anywhere else.”

Rayboun said Van Lent mostly deleted personal information and returned copies of work documents to foundation servers before he even reached out for legal help.

“They have the information. He has nothing that belongs to the foundation. Nothing,” Rayboun said.

When he asked for a list of missing documents, Rayboun said the foundation failed to provide them.

“When you're asked to prove a negative, it's not an easy thing to do,” he said. “I just imagine the instructions to the California attorneys were, we're going to pay you money to grind this man into dust, make sure he is scared, he doesn't sleep, he doesn't eat. And we could possibly bankrupt you.”

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Associated Press
While Everglades restoration originally focused on sending more water south to Florida Bay following a widespread seagrass die-off and algae bloom in the 1990s, more attention has turned to northern estuaries where Lake Okeechobee has helped fuel algae blooms.

In the complex world of Everglades science, where trade-offs to balance competing interests are often lurking, Van Lent is considered a valuable modeler and expert in fluid dynamics — mapping out the complicated plan to get water where and when it’s needed to restore collapsing marshes. In the mid 1980s, he worked building models for the South Florida Water Management before joining the South Florida Natural Resources Center, which spearheads Everglades research for the National Park Service.

“Tom Van Lent is the one hydrologist who I'd want to hear from if it's on any water management issue in the Everglades,” said Mike Ross, a landscape ecologist at Florida International University who’s researched mangrove and pine rockland forests in the Everglades for the last three decades.

In the 1990s, Van Lent provided critical analysis that highlighted a particularly thorny problem. To restore the Everglades, marshes and both Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay need more freshwater. But moving more water into Everglades National Park to accomplish that could raise groundwater and worsen flooding in farm fields and western neighborhoods in Southwest Miami-Dade.

“It's something I have on my shelf and that's what I turn to to understand the eastern Everglades,” Ross said. “That's a critical part of restoration: How do you put water in Everglades National Park and have adequate drainage in [Miami-Dade] County. You have to balance those things.”

Van Lent also helped determine the amount of water needed to restore marshes and was an early advocate of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The original restoration blueprint called for a 60,000-acre shallow reservoir that would allow plants to flourish and keep water cleaner. Florida lawmakers, however, only approved an 11,000-acre, 23-foot deep reservoir with treatment cleaning marshes covering another 6,000 acres.

The state is now completing work on the marsh and plans to begin using it once completed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the federal side of restoration, doesn’t expect to finish the reservoir for another five years. That means the marsh could be used to help existing treatment marshes that clean water from sugar fields that are frequently taken offline during the wet season for maintenance. In 2025, Florida will need to meet a federally court-ordered cleanup deadline for that water.

Van Lent, along with federal scientists with the Department of Interior and Army Corps, have questioned whether the treatment marsh will be able to accomplish its job.

It’s that kind of expertise that landed Van Lent a job with Friends of the Everglades, said Samples. Friends and Sierra have also raised questions over the reservoir.

“For a grassroots organization like ours, founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, this is an incredible opportunity to work with the preeminent Everglades scientist,” she said. “So when the opportunity presented itself, we were thrilled and we remained thrilled.”

The foundation’s claims, she said, did not change that. But she does worry the legal action could be seen as an attempt to muzzle dissent.

“I certainly hope it doesn't have a chilling effect on any open debate about Everglades restoration,” Samples said. “Because the best thing for the Everglades will be to make sure that we are openly and transparently debating the best path forward and what the science guides us to, and not settling for any political solutions.”