I sat in the front seat of my family’s 2006 Volvo station wagon, examining my mosquito-bitten legs, and started to question my decision to go to Florida. It was January 2021, and I was more than 1,600 miles away from home. When the College had announced that winter term—the first J-term in a COVID-influenced world—would be entirely remote, I decided that I didn’t want to stay at home for another month, but I also didn’t want to return to Vermont, like many of my classmates were doing.
When my friend Oscar Psychas ’21 proposed that a few of us flee southbound to his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, an image of warm air and direct sunlight intrigued me.
This is how I ended up driving from Brunswick, Maine, to northern Florida, picking up friends Adam Blachly ’21.5 and Myles Stokowski ’21.5 along the way. We’d be joining Oscar in Gainesville, all living together in an Airbnb and taking our respective J-term classes remotely. We were all happy to be there, but Oscar was probably the most excited.
Oscar is more passionate about his hometown than most people I know. His love of home has translated into direct action through environmental activism pursuits. In 2018, Oscar, along with seven other young Floridians, sued the state of Florida to protect current and future generations from the intensifying impacts of climate change. That same year, he created a two-week summer program called Young Leaders for Wild Florida to empower young people to get involved in environmental movements locally. Now he serves on the steering committee for the Suwannee-St. John’s chapter of the Sierra Club.
During J-term, I was enrolled in a class called Immersive Journalism, in which we would be discussing ethics in journalism, especially as they related to reporting on vulnerable communities. A large portion of the work in the class involved an independent reporting project. For a while, I was at a loss for how to report a story during the pandemic in a place that was utterly unfamiliar to me.
During the first week, after a Sierra Club meeting that Oscar attended, we went on a walk and he told me about an issue he was working against. It was a road, or rather, several roads. These roads are the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES), now commonly known in opposition circles as the “toll roads to nowhere.” The bill, which authorized the design and construction of three toll roads along 330 miles of western Florida, was passed by the Florida state legislature in 2019.
“It’s a total plutocracy,” Oscar began, before launching into a 20-minute rant that ranged from griping about billionaires to decrying Florida’s underspending on social services.
Though this topic was so much bigger than something I could cover in one month, I was moved by Oscar’s passion and decided I would take it on, no matter the time constraints. I was determined to talk to as many people as I could that month, people from all sides of the issue, and I knew I would require Oscar’s local knowledge and connections. What better way to get to know my new surroundings than to steep myself in a current political issue?
During our first weekend, we drove several hours south to the Everglades. We met Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee advocate, in the dirt parking lot of Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours, just off the Tamiami Trail west of Miami. Oscar had set up this interview after meeting her a few weeks earlier at an environmental justice walk nearby. Oscar, Adam, Myles, and I were sitting in the stuffy car, cramped with camping gear and smelly wool socks, when she pulled up next to us in her Ford pickup truck. As she emerged, I noticed she had on long sleeves and jeans on a surprisingly hot day for early January. Her hair was pulled back in a long braid. She greeted us and asked us how we had spent our morning. We told her about our dreamy walk near the Big Cypress Visitor Center trails that had been flooded by pristine water. We had taken our shoes off and waded through the shimmering water, squished our toes in the gentle mud, which only upon our footsteps became momentarily murky.
Immediately, she burst our fantasy. She chided us for our foolishness for not carrying large sticks due to the very real possibility that we might encounter poisonous snakes. Osceola told us that there has been talk of eradicating Florida’s feral hog, a proposal that she views as impractical. She explained to us that feral hogs are predators of poisonous snakes; when hog populations diminish, these snake populations increase. Osceola does not view her landscape with rose-tinted glasses, but she knows her home and environment with practical, generational knowledge. Osceola is a member of the Miccosukee, an independent tribe in the Florida Everglades that formerly belonged to the Seminole Nation.
We had to come to speak with Osceola about the roads. Though the actual route of the road has yet to be determined, the study areas for the road include three corridors that begin at Jefferson County in the north and extend as far south as Collier County, where Big Cypress National Preserve is located. Some of this road could pass through Indigenous land, very near where we were, gutting and paving over the habitat and devastating both the place and her entire community.
I was still feeling spooked about the snakes when she led us down to the dock and pointed us to the boat. An airboat, it had three rows of metal benches and one very large fan. On the seats were pairs of earmuffs for each of us. I sat in the middle row and protectively clutched my recording gear in my lap. I was a little nervous about asking her if I could record our conversation. She had told Oscar that she prefers not to have “political conversations” on the phone because she is nervous that the government is listening. Though this initially struck me as slightly paranoid, I soon realized her concerns were justified. She has seen her words and her knowledge manipulated by social media. She has used her Facebook as a tool for activism and has seen her posts removed, despite not being in violation of any posting guidelines. Osceola is not paranoid. She is cautious.
Former Republican Senate president Bill Galvano was the primary champion of this bill. The roads, if built, stood to cost the state over $20 billion, already a massive sum, but since the pandemic, the state is now facing budget constraints that will be examined in the upcoming March 2022 legislative session. Since the proposal of the bill in 2019, a wide range of individuals, interest groups, and organizations have come out in opposition.
Most prominent in the opposition has been the No Roads to Ruin Coalition, which formed in response to the proposed roads and is made up of various organizations and businesses that hope to stop the construction of these roads through collective efforts. Oscar has been involved in the coalition through his Sierra Club group. The coalition currently has 105 partners and centers its opposition to the M-CORES around seven pillars: bad for water, bad for our wildlife, bad for our health, bad for taxpayers, bad for agriculture, bad for rural communities, and bad for the climate. The website for the coalition boasts flashy images of the endangered Florida panther with the caption “M-CORES = extinction.” Though much of the advocacy focuses on the environmental degradation that could transpire, a large effort of the coalition is to expose the allegedly undemocratic process of the state government as well as the widespread public opposition to the roads.
Roads are simultaneously imperative to modern progress and a destructive colonial tool that paves over tribal lands. They have the capacity to create enormous economic growth while also halting biodiversity. They have the ability to connect rural communities to better resources. But do those rural communities even desire that? I was discovering Floridians from all walks of life were wrestling with these issues—and some were making their voices heard.
This isn’t the first time Osceola’s community has encountered the challenge posed by a road coming through its land. The Tamiami Trail, where her airboat company is located, was built in the late 1920s to connect the state’s coasts. It runs from the Miami area all the way up to Tampa and cuts directly through the Big Cypress National Preserve and thus Miccosukee tribal land.
Osceola explained that from a scientific perspective, this road was a dam through the Everglades that altered both the ecosystem and the way of life of the Seminole and Miccosukee people on that land. Her people, many of whom lived in hammock islands, were forced to move out and relocate closer to the highway.
“They had to evolve in order to continue to exist,” she told us.
A few years back, a group of Naples cyclists proposed building a 76-mile bike path through the Everglades. While the intention of the bike path was to create a more environmentally friendly mode of transportation through the region, Osceola was dubious. The bike path, which was planned to be built parallel to the Tamiami Trail, which runs east-west through Florida, would essentially create a second dam through this region, dredging and filling a culturally sensitive area. Such a bike path, she thought, would displace her people and open up the landscape to further development. Again.
This event prompted Osceola to guide her first protest walk in 2015. In this walk, she brought dozens of people to learn about and walk for five days through the area that would be destroyed if the bike path were built. They began at a campground in Ochopee and walked to the Miccosukee Resort and Casino in Miami, allowing people to visualize just how much of the swamp ecosystem would be eviscerated.
“Once they started seeing every single foot of what was going to be impacted, they realized, wow, the pictures didn’t look like that.”
While I would be inclined to label Osceola an activist, she explains to us that she doesn’t see herself as a leader but rather as a facilitator with help from spiritual guidance. She facilitated another prayer walk more recently in early January of 2021, in response to the U.S. government’s recent decision to turn over Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act to the state. That’s where she and Oscar met. Osceola sees the consequences of this decision as vast, denying protections to culturally sensitive land. She feels it is an erasure of history and an erosion of tribal sovereignty. Around 50 people joined Osceola in a two-day walk, united in the cause of defending the sacred land.
Osceola herself is not involved directly in the fight against these toll roads. She is, however, a fierce advocate of the ecosystem, meaning that the fight is hers as well. She speculated that the decision to overturn this permitting would make it easier for the M-CORES to be built, with less oversight and protection of this ecosystem.
“You have to understand the way we’re raised,” she explains. “We’re a part of that landscape, we exist in that landscape. And we coexist with our environment, because we’re natural beings in a natural world.”
Nearly our entire conversation with her took place on the airboat, floating among the sawgrass marsh, cattails, and hammock islands. The midday sunlight was formidable, and the temperature climbed into the high 70s. The roar of the airboat was deafening, but the boat was off while we spoke. When we asked a question, Osceola jumped into an answer that often lasted as long as half an hour. She wasn’t rambling though; she had thoughtful responses and orated in impassioned monologues. She spoke about the oral tradition and intergenerational knowledge of her community, about the issue of bio-sludge from city sewers that gets redirected to the Everglade ecosystem, and even about her new TikTok account, which she uses to make videos showing people the Everglades and asking them to join her in protecting them.
At one point, a boat-tailed grackle landed on the railing of the boat. She swooped in on this teachable moment and explained that there are many fewer birds here than there used to be. They used to be plentiful. Bird populations are a bellwether of the overall health of the Everglades ecosystem. Scientists from Audubon Florida reported a 28 percent decline in wading bird nesting between 2013 and 2014 in the Everglades. At 53 years of age, Osceola has seen a lot of change in her lifetime.
Toward the end of our ride, we spotted a nearby alligator. She looked at it seriously and made a kind request that it not eat us. You’ve got to let them get home so they can tell your story, she told the alligator.
Just north of Osceola in Fort Myers, Michael McGrath has been working hard to coordinate grassroots efforts across the state against the roads. McGrath is an organizer for the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, and though he is only in his mid-20s, he is a passionate authority on these roads. Oscar suggested I speak to him, as another young voice in this fight. I chuckled a bit when I noticed how often McGrath used the word “boondoggle” to describe M-CORES, but I soon realized that this was the buzzword of this toll roads fight. McGrath grew up in Volusia County and has watched Florida become increasingly developed throughout his life.
“It scares the heck out of me,” he told me. He wants future generations of Floridians to be able to experience “real Florida” and worries that won’t be possible if the roads are built. This is not only a concern for personal enjoyment of natural spaces but an economic concern as well.
Already, millions of dollars have been poured into the task force process that has allowed for input from various interest groups along the path of the proposed roads. The current Senate president, Wilton Simpson, who has previously stated his support for the roads, is now tasked with reassessing whether or not the state can afford to designate funds to M-CORES.
On the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) website for M-CORES, some of the intended benefits of the roads include “hurricane evacuation, congestion mitigation, trade and logistics, and broadband, water, and sewer connectivity.” The website also outlines how they will protect the environment and how local residents can provide input on the roads through the implementation of task forces with public meetings in all regions where the roads are being considered.
Despite the purported transparency in this process and the plethora of benefits that FDOT touts, many Floridians, McGrath included, feel the process has been deceptive. Oscar would agree on this point but would probably use much stronger language to explain it. Some claim the task force process, which transitioned to online when the pandemic began, has existed more for appearance than for actual public input and, since the pandemic, has accelerated processes unfairly.
When I asked for clarification on this point, McGrath emailed me a letter in a press release from May of 2020 that explained how these online meetings were in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which outlines the extent of open government and capacity for public participation. Written by the president of the First Amendment Foundation, the letter acknowledges that the switch to online webinars was done out of concern for safety during the pandemic. It goes on to suggest that the process has violated the law, which suggests that a meeting be postponed if technical difficulties prevent individuals from participating.
In early pandemic times, technological difficulties were unexceptional. To compound this issue, many of the people trying to speak at these task force meetings ranged from middle-aged to senior citizens. And many of those individuals resided in the rural communities on the path of the toll roads with minimal access to the Internet. Meanwhile, FDOT promises that in building these controversial roads, it will simultaneously supply broadband to these communities. The irony of this challenge is striking.
Chris Emmanuel, director of infrastructure and governance policy at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, very much supports M-CORES and cited the immense population growth as a reason behind that support. He explained that I-75, the interstate that runs through much of Florida, frequently shuts down due to accidents, which often are deadly.
“We kill a lot of Floridians on that stretch of road,” he told me. With M-CORES, the toll roads would have more closed access and thus hopefully be safer and more efficient. More roads, however, could be deadly for the Florida panther, for which the leading cause of death is road accidents.
Emmanuel acknowledged environmentalists’ concerns and told me there seem to be many misconceptions about the process of creating these roads.
“They’re thinking that this is 300 brand new miles of road. And there will be a lot of new roads, but it’ll be nowhere near that,” he said. He expounded on this by explaining that a lot of it could be colocated roads, and that would involve upgrading existing infrastructure.
He told me that while some rural communities have expressed their opposition to the roads, the creation of minimum-wage gas station jobs for poor counties is better than no new jobs. Emmanuel is aware of the controversy but embraces politics as a means for society to sort out these difficult topics.
“Collaboration under the public eye is very, very messy,” Emmanuel recognized. “And people are showing up to the table in good faith and wanting to have a high quality of life, to protect the environment, to make sure that people are safe on our roads, and that businesses can continue to expand. But how to get there is the tough part.”
Prayer walks are by no means the only tool at the disposal of communities opposed to M-CORES. On the opposite end of the proposed roads is the northern town of Monticello, just east of Tallahassee. Monticello is the commercial hub of Jefferson County, though “hub” might be a generous term to describe a town of fewer than 3,000 people. Like much of rural Florida, Jefferson County is overwhelmingly conservative, so I was curious to see how opposition to M-CORES crossed party lines. Initially, much of the public opposition I encountered was through environmental conservation groups and thus largely liberal-leaning people.
I found out about some of these M-CORES opponents when I watched a video on a website of the Citizens for Responsible Government of Jefferson County. The video, titled “Why are Jefferson County citizens resisting a toll road?” is less than three minutes long and opens with an aerial shot of Monticello and what I would describe as upbeat, stock guitar music. A few seconds in, a man with a thick Southern accent begins speaking about how the county is home.
In the next few minutes of the video, several community members speak about the importance of preserving their rural community, their local natural resources such as the Aucilla-Wacissa watershed, and their way of life. They are business owners, barbers, and county commissioners. I reached out to several people from the video and spoke with a few of them.
The first was Justin Johnson, a barber in Monticello who owns and runs his barbershop in the historic district of the town. He called me from the shop as he was closing up for the day around five o’clock. We had spoken briefly earlier that day, but he explained to me that because he only takes walk-in clients, it was best to speak later so we wouldn’t be interrupted.
Johnson had a gentle tone and called me “ma’am.” He explained that the group that created the video was largely composed of business owners in the county who want to keep a check on the local government and ensure that it is listening to its constituents.
When I asked him about the road, he told me that initially he was intrigued by the prospect of more commerce in the county but soon changed his mind when he realized that the nature of a toll road means that people will rarely be getting off the highway and contributing to the town’s economy.
“It might bring a few jobs here and there, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, and not to downplay those, you know, because they do give people employment. But I don’t think it’s enough,” he told me.
Johnson identified himself to me as a Republican but told me he was pleased to see that opposition to these roads appears to cross party lines.
“People are actually working together with opposing political views on most things,” he remarked. “And as a parent of young children, it gives me hope.”
The following day, I called up Chris Tuten, a friend of Johnson’s and a Jefferson County commissioner. Unlike Johnson, who is originally from Georgia, Tuten has spent his whole life in Jefferson County and is a third-generation resident. His main occupation is raising beef cattle, but he told me he got into politics for his two sons, Hugh and Gus. He wants them to be able to experience the same life that he has been able to experience.
In his race for commissioner, Tuten ran with no party affiliation, because he believes firmly that the position should not be partisan. His one opponent in the race ran as a Republican. Tuten echoed much of what I heard from Johnson in regard to the toll roads. While he means no disrespect to minimum-wage jobs, he feels that the county needs more sustainable jobs. That’s why he passed the “No Build” resolution.
Curious about what Tuten and his community wanted to protect so badly, I decided to take a trip up to Monticello. Tuten offered to take me on a walking tour around the town. I pulled off the interstate and drove the five-mile road to town. I noticed a few Trump signs in front yards and a sign for “Outstanding Rural Community of the Year 1999.”
Tuten met me in the parking lot of Rev’s Cafe and greeted me cheerfully. His outfit was nearly a caricature of a cattle rancher: he wore a cowboy hat, an American flag neck gaiter as a mask, a Carhartt T-shirt, khaki work pants, and brown cowboy boots. Adam and Myles had come with me, and they trailed behind us at an awkward 20-foot distance as we strolled around town. As we crossed the street toward the courthouse, a truck slowed for us to cross, and as Tuten looked up, he recognized the man driving. They exchanged pleasantries.
“He’s basically family,” Tuten told me, laughing.
That was not the last time that happened. Tuten seemed to know nearly everyone around town. The town is quaint, filled with many antique and furniture shops.
At the end of our tour, we walked around the courthouse and he pointed out an obelisk statue, which read at the bottom “Our Fallen Heroes” in reference to the Confederate soldiers who fought during the Civil War. Tuten explained that over the summer, during an intense moment of racial reckoning in our country, there had been calls to have the statue taken down. This issue was brought before the city council in mid-July, and the community ultimately chose to keep it up.
Having seen the town myself, I can understand what the people of Jefferson County are speaking about in the video. Monticello has a historic southern charm that its citizens have fought to preserve. But their romanticization of the past might also have its costs.
While reporting this story, I thought a lot about the 2020 presidential election. It was hard not to, with Trump banners still visible throughout much of the state. In an era in which political beliefs have been so polarized, I was surprised to find a cause that people from varying political beliefs could all rally behind.
At the same time, most of the people who collectively oppose M-CORES do not know each other and do not oppose the roads for the same reason. Because the swath of land that stands to be impacted is so vast, it is impossible for this fight not to be incredibly decentralized. Stopping the toll roads means different things for Osceola, McGrath, and Tuten, respectively.
After six weeks there, I learned that going forward, I probably didn’t want to live in a house with three boys. I learned that Floridians were much more than “Florida man.” I saw all of the stereotypes I had heard about the state in play and also saw them being constantly contradicted. The southernmost contiguous state is rapidly experiencing climate change while also experiencing some of the greatest population growth in the country. It was toll roads that brought me to Florida and back and toll roads that stood for and in the way of progress.
Before we drove back north, we spent our final weekend on the eastern coast in St. Augustine. On the last day, we spent the afternoon walking along the beach of Anastasia State Park, home to the ancient sand dunes. The temperature was in the mid-60s, and we all walked barefoot so we could feel the orange-brown sand between our toes. My curls mimicked the sway of the saltmarsh grass on the dunes. I was 1,600 miles south of my home, but the smell of the ocean filled my nostrils, and when I squeezed my eyes shut, the meditative rumble of the waves almost felt like home.
A year has passed since I first started reporting this story. I spoke to so many more people than I could include. Since I initially wrote this story, the matter of the toll roads has undergone various changes. During the 2021 Florida legislative session, Republican Senator Gayle Harrell introduced SB 100, which repealed the M-CORES legislation. In June of that year, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill.
SB 100, however, did not shut down the possibility of future road proposals. The bill asks that FDOT begin a study that explores the possibility of extending the Florida Turnpike, though the route and other significant details remain to be determined. Still, organizations like Audubon, 1000 Friends of Florida, and of course the No Roads to Ruin Coalition have their concerns and are advocating for protections in the process.
Every week I still receive an email update from Cris Costello, a Sierra Club organizing manager and a member of the No Roads to Ruin Steering Committee. The emails often summarize the conversations that have taken place at a given county’s board of commissioners meeting and, to encourage people to reach out and demand passage of “No Build” resolutions, provide the names and contact information of local politicians.
The emails are written as passionate calls to action. In the most recent email blast, Costello, on behalf of the steering committee, writes, “THERE IS NO ROUTE that will not have devastating impacts on the county. We cannot harm one community, farm, lake, or spring in the hope of saving another.”
These emails send a clear message: this fight isn’t over.