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subfield code a E21-000202 USFLDC DOI0 245 Mariella Smith oral history interviewh [electronic resource] /c interviewed by Emily Holbrook.500 Full cataloging of this resource is underway and will replace this temporary record when complete.1 600 Smith, Mariella7 655 Oral history.localOnline audio.local700 Holbrook, Emily710 University of South Florida.b Library.Digital Scholarship Services - Digital Collections.Oral History Program.773 t Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program Oral History Project4 856 u https://digital.lib.usf.edu/?e21.20
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text Emily Holbrook (EH): This is Emily Holbrook, and I am here with Commissioner Smith at the County Center in Tampa, Florida. It is September 23rd, 2019, and weâ€™re doing an ELAPP oral history interview. Okay, so first, thank you so much for sitting down with us. We really appreciate it, taking your time out of your day to do this. My first question for you is, how long have you been in the Hillsborough County, Tampa Bay area?
Mariella Smith (MS): Oh, Iâ€™m a fourth-generation native of Tampa Bay. I grew up on Tampa Bay, in South Tampa, and then, about 20 years ago, I moved to the mouth of the Little Manatee River, on Tampa Bay, in south [Hillsborough] county.
EH: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in this area?
MS: It was wonderful, and I really had a wonderful childhood. In some ways, I look back and say, â€œWhoa! Parents just let us, you know, bicycle anywhere weâ€â€”it was just a different time. So we would bicycle, we would take our little boat out into the bay. As a child, I used to have a long-handled dip net, and dip upâ€”I lived on Tampa Bay in South Tampaâ€”so I would dip up little baby pufferfish and spiny boxfish and trunkfish, beautiful little babies that would come in with the seagrass, and lots of seahorses.
MS: I know. And yeah, it was a magical place with schools of mullet jumping. Just tons of mullet jumping in the summer evenings, and fireflies, and just a very different kind ofâ€”less urban, even in the city, then.
EH: What about the, like, parks and green spaces and things like that? What were those like when you were growing up?
MS: You know, my familyâ€”my parents were not that outdoorsy as I turned out to be. So we did not do the kind of picnicking in the park when I was a child, but as I grew older, then my friends and I would go out, and there were not ELAPP lands, of course, then. We would go out to places where there wereâ€”like the phosphate mines or big open spaces to just hang out. There was, oh, places on the bay, where you could go to access the bay, but they werenâ€™t formal parks. They justâ€”you know how kids areâ€”go someplace where there wasnâ€™t the development, and enjoy being outdoors.
EH: So speaking of the development, can you talk a little bit about seeing that development of Tampa Bay over time?
MS: Sure. I remember as a small child, you know, my parents had friends who lived on White Trout Lake, which is now Carrollwood. And they would take us in their car, out to visit their friends on White Trout Lake, and it wasâ€”I mean, we would be going out past cow pastures and orange groves, and into the countryside, and swim in the lake and pull up shellfish and stuff, and thatâ€™s Carrollwood now. And thisâ€”the road that we took out was Dale Mabry [Highway], you know, so it has all developed pretty quickly.
EH: How did that development impact you?
MS: I justâ€”I didnâ€™t feel like it was impacting me, looking back. I justâ€”as I got older, I realized, if we donâ€™t preserve some of these places and spaces, and make room for the wildlife, and make room forâ€”to connect the wetlands and connect the habitat, we wonâ€™t have it.
EH: So, I mean, speaking on that, how did your interest in, like, environmental conservation and things like that sort of get started?
MS: Really, it was more when I went to graduate school in Tallahassee that I was doing a lot of getting outdoors and into the Apalachicola National Forest, and began exploring Florida when I got a little older. And then I was 19 years old, in graduate school in Tallahassee, and I was just knocking around the library and stumbled upon this inch-and-a-half-thick picture book of the wild orchids of Florida, which has since gone out of print. Itâ€™s by Dr. Carl Luer, and he was a physician, but he took his family on weekends toâ€”throughout Florida, exploring and searching and hunting for all of the wild orchids that grow in Florida and documenting them with beautiful pictures and maps of where their habitat is, and where their range is, and when they bloom. And he communicated a passion for them, particularly the ghost orchidâ€”you may have heard ofâ€”but also the little terrestrial orchids that we have.
And I asked my parents to buy me that book for Christmas, and itâ€™s still on my shelf. And I began hunting for the wild orchids, and at the same time, I became very interested in carnivorous plants, which growâ€”we have several species of carnivorous plants in Florida. And so on the weekends, I would go out into the Apalachicola Forest with my friends. I had friends who were very interested in snakes and reptiles that grew in Florida and lived in the Apalachicola Forest. And we would go together, and I would be lookingâ€”â€œStop the car. Stop the car. I think thatâ€™s an orchid. I think thatâ€™s a pitcher plant.â€ And they would be like, Oh, stop the car, I think thatâ€™s a rattlesnake. I think I saw a timber rattler, or somethingâ€”whatever, a kingsnakeâ€”whatever it would be, and we would just go exploring.
And I became, you know, just as a layperson, more and more interested in everything thatâ€™s out there, from the plants to the animals. And what this kind of scat, you could tell was which animalâ€”now Iâ€™m using my friends, picking apart some dried old scats, showing, â€œThis is how you know itâ€™s a bobcat because theyâ€™re predators, and you can see the hair and the teeth.â€
EH: Thatâ€™s wonderful.
MS: Yeah, so, â€œYes, this is your commissioner on the trail, and hereâ€™s the difference in the gopher tortoise scat because thatâ€™s going to be all vegetable material. And you can tell which way he was walking by which way that scat is pointing.â€
EH: Wow. Thatâ€™s wonderful. Thatâ€™s so fun. So you were, like, 19 at the time, and doing that in grad school?
EH: How did that sort of built up into where you are now, and becoming a commissioner for the county?
MS: So from there, once I cameâ€”I mean, and my degree is in philosophy with a major in ethics and logic, but from there none of it has anything to with biology or botany or anything, thatâ€™s just my hobby. And then, from there, I actually went on to start a business in graphic design and web development. So I come home, and I'm just working for a living but still had this interest in native plants. And soâ€”[phone rings] sorry. I went toâ€”I was living with my husband in Temple Terrace, and I had been interested in the Nativeâ€”Florida Native Plant Society and the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club for their protection of the environment, but was reallyâ€”I hadnâ€™t gotten involved in any of that till I got married and kind of settled down and saw that the Florida Native Plant Society was having a meeting in the University area. And we were in Temple Terrace, so I said, â€œOkay.â€
My husband was working nights, so this was somethingâ€”I popped in, and lo and behold, these people were talking about the Epidendrum tampensis and the, you know, Spartina-something-flora. And this was the language that I had been using as I guided my friends through the forest and swamplands, and said, â€œLook! Thereâ€™s the Encyclia cochleata, thereâ€™s Epidendrum tampensis, and thereâ€™s a Spiranthes and Habenaria.â€ And they would all be making fun of me. And so suddenly I was in this room full of people who are all talking about that, and showing slides of these plants, and picking them apart and looking at their little reproductive organs, and I said, â€œYes. These are my people.â€
And they would do field trips and go out on field trips. I started laying out the newsletter for them, and volunteering with them, and then going out on the field trips with them. And from there, I mean, it just became a hobby and a passion. I started a little group of women, who would go out hiking on the last Friday of the month, and we would go somewhere, usually on ELAPP land, thatâ€”rain or shine, hot or cold, whatever it was, the last Friday of the month, we took off work and we would go hike somewhere.
If it was in the summertime, we would find a placeâ€”and it was usually me finding these placesâ€”and find a place where we could get in the river, somewhere along the hike, you know. If it was in the winter, not so much, you know. But weâ€”from doing that once a month rain or shine, whatever the season, I became even more in tune with the seasons here in Florida, and particularly in our area, and what blooms, and what animals are roaming, and what birds are migrating through, and what butterflies are coming at which times of year. And after a couple of years of that, you start to see the natural cycles and really appreciate that.
And meanwhile, lucky for me, my husband was every bit as interested in the outdoors, and we would go kayaking and hiking and camping, backpacking, throughout the state. So I really just deepened my appreciation of the outdoors and realized what a wonderful thing Hillsborough County was doing with their ELAPP program in protecting these areas.
EH: Soâ€”mentioned the ELAPPâ€”how did you start to get involved in ELAPP?
MS: I, you know, it was so long agoâ€”it may be somewhere between 10 and 15, 20 years ago, that I first got on the ELAPP general committee. I was on several stakeholder committees over time and volunteering with cleanup, with removal of Brazilian peppers and invasive plants. I got very involved with a group of people that was helping to removeâ€”volunteering to remove invasive plants, particularly around Marsh Creek, and became active in trying to get â€œswiftmudâ€ to help us restore that area. And got involved with the Tampa Bay Estuary Programâ€™s Give a Day for the Bay cleanups that they would do.
And I canâ€™tâ€”I donâ€™t know what order it came all in, I just got involved with all of it. So then I got on theâ€”at some pointâ€”on Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve management advisory team. That was a stakeholder group of everyone from TECO [Tampa Electric Company] to agricultural interests to voters. Because Cockroach Bayâ€”the Aquatic Preserveâ€”had problems with the motorboats tearing up the seagrasses, and we needed to come up with some kinds of zones where that wouldnâ€™t be allowed, in order to protect the seagrasses. And in order to do that, we brought everybody to the table.
And so in groups like that, I began to be representing the environmental interests but trying to finding consensus and common ground with the groups who wanted to run their motorboats. But [I] understood at the same time the need to protect the resource so that the fishery would still be there for them to enjoy. So [I] began working with groups like that and, along the way, became part of the ELAPP general committee.
EH: And so now that youâ€™re a commissioner, whatâ€™s sort of your role with ELAPP now?
MS: Making sure they get enough money to preserve what needs to be preserved before itâ€™s all goneâ€”facing the pressures that we are facing of development threatening to pave it all over.
EH: And what do you see as the main goals of ELAPP?
MS: The main goal isâ€”I'm sure what most people would tell youâ€”and that is to preserve the crucial pieces that are needed to connect corridors that allow wildlife to travel, and connect big pieces of habitat so that you can have meaningful gene pools surviving and living. And that a panther canâ€”or, not a panther, but a bobcat or foxes can get from one end to the other and not be in isolated islands, which end up having trouble with their gene pool over time. But also that they can connect with the prey they need to survive and connect with their food sources.
And all of that, the plants and the animals, can beâ€”the habitats can be connected in significant, large swaths, as well as the wetlands and waterways can move in the ways that nature intended and that is beneficial for the wildlife so that we can preserve it. If we only ended up preserving little small islands of pockets of beautiful wild areas, you would have an isolated, say, population of gopher tortoises. Well, that eventually would die out if itâ€™s not connected to more gopher tortoises and scrub jays. And everything that we have here needs to be big, connected corridors.
EH: And youâ€™ve been involved in ELAPP for a long time, even before your time as a commissioner.
MS: Oh yes.
EH: So how has, like, ELAPP changed since youâ€™ve been involved?
MS: Whatâ€”ELAPP is one of the things this county does really right. And so ELAPP has been making great strides in protecting the environment and connecting. But over time, too, itâ€™s been facing greater and greater pressure from development toâ€”that has been taking prime habitat and prime wild places out ofâ€”off the table. So once theyâ€™re gone, theyâ€™re gone. Because whatâ€™s really critical is not only that you have the wildlife there and the right plants, you have to have the right soils. And once development comes in and excavates that and digs a drainage ditch and brings in fill from somewhere else, youâ€™re never going to be able to scrape that all off and restore it to something that actually supports the true native habitat.
EH: So now ELAPP is more, sort of, trying to combat or fight against, like, increasing development?
MS: Absolutely. Andâ€”as well as, you know, political pressures. There are those who say, â€œWell, how much is enough?â€ Because we have to spend money not only at acquiring ELAPP land, but maintaining it and burning it and removing the exotics. And soâ€”I say not, you know, itâ€™s not about how much is enough, itâ€™s about what are the crucial pieces that are still left that we really need to protect within our county. And thereâ€™s plenty of it. I, myself, have nominated quite a lot of it, yeah. And some of it has been preserved, and some of itâ€™s still out there.
EH: Okay, great. That sort of leads me into, like, my next question, which is, whatâ€™s thatâ€”for people who donâ€™t really know how ELAPP works, and things like thatâ€”so what is that decision-making process like? Like, how do you decide what lands to acquire? Like, what goes through that?
MS: You know, Iâ€™ve been on the site-selection team for many years, and I've always been very proud of the objective nature of that. The whole ELAPP committee and the individual committees are made of volunteers who are really passion-driven, and people who really understand and are very knowledgeable and bring different perspectivesâ€”retired scientists, environmental scientists and stuff, come in and participate in this, and people who understand the real estate market, and people who understand the soils that I was talking about, and the hydrology, and the habitat.
And so thereâ€™s a ranking system that is, you know, assigns points for certain criteria that we need to reallyâ€”that we need to value, and then the sites are ranked with a discussion about how many points we should grant for this area meeting these criteria. And then itâ€™sâ€”theyâ€™re ranked A, B, and C, and then we have our priority list of whatâ€™s the most important lands to acquire. But a key criteria is lands thatâ€™ll make a connection and lands that are under threat ofâ€”immediate threat of development.
EH: And once ELAPP acquires the space, how does ELAPP having it affect that space?
MS: Once itâ€™s acquired, itâ€™s preserved forever. Itâ€™s just such a beautiful thing because we buy land, we donâ€™t sell it, ever. And we donâ€™t trade it, and itâ€™s preserved. And often, we protect it jointly with other agencies like â€œswiftmudâ€ or some other land conservancy organization, and then you getâ€”the more layers of bureaucracy you can have on the ownership of the land, the harder it would be, ever, to come in and do anything else with it. But once we have it, we have it. And itâ€™s protected, and then theâ€”one point that Iâ€™ve tried to make, when people are saying, Yeah, but it costs us money, not just to acquire but to maintain, and we might not be in a position to spend that money right now. I say, â€œBut letâ€™s just acquire it. Letâ€™s just get it and hold it, even if itâ€™s just a bunch of Brazilian pepper, because onceâ€™s itâ€™s a parking lot and a retail store, or a strip mall, itâ€™s done. So letâ€™s just get it, then weâ€™ll worry about how we can maintain it.â€
EH: So historically, ELAPP has been very popular with Hillsborough County voters, but can you recall any, like, political resistance to the program since youâ€™ve been involved?
MS: Well, yes, I can. And now I'm a new commissioner. So I'm used to being an activist for 20 years, so Iâ€™m not used to being careful with what I say, but I can tell you that we have had people in the county administration who would rather be spending money on other things. And so thatâ€™s where the resistance has come fromâ€”from people who, within the county, would rather spend the money on other things. But as you say, the citizens of Hillsborough County voted the last time to extend this and tax themselves, and that was during a recession. And they voted toâ€”by almost 80 percentâ€”itâ€™s, like, unbelievable, the landslide mandate that ELAPP carries with it from the voters.
EH: Why do you think Hillsborough voters are so supportive of the program?
MS: You know, itâ€™sâ€”thatâ€™s an interesting question, because not everybody is like I am in getting out and hiking. I was just out on one of the ELAPP properties this weekend.
EH: Oh wow.
MS: I mean, Iâ€™m out there a lotâ€”justâ€”itâ€™s where I refresh, right? Not everybody does that, but even the people who are not out in it as much as I am, they recognize that this is something precious that we have to leave future generations and that if we donâ€™t preserve it now, itâ€™s gone. People also understand the value of the wetlands, and in this day of flooding risks and storm events and rain events becoming more and more of an issue even for people who are not on the coastal areas, they recognize the value of natural wetlands being the storage areas and the protection for our neighborhoods. And that if you pave over everything and harden our landscapes so itâ€™s notâ€”no longer permeable, and rain is no longer soaking into the ground, thatâ€™s a danger for our neighborhoods.
And theyâ€”the people also recognize the value of the filtration of natural areas for the water that percolates down through and into our wellfields and eventually into our riversâ€”that is a source of our drinking water. So those were always points that resonated with people. But also, people liked the idea of having some wild spaces and some spaces where there still are deer and bobcats and foxes and eagles, and where eagles can hunt. People like to know that itâ€™s within their neighborhood.
EH: And what do you see as the future of ELAPP?
MS: We still have more to do. We still have more to acquire. And itâ€™s still very important to preserve the scrub jay. The scrub jay exists only in Florida. And I should show you a picture I have of scrub jays after we finish with the recording. But the future is to make sure that we have preserved all that is needed to preserve within our county to maintain that balance of life, of humans, and development, and agriculture, and wild spaces, and wildlife, and some of the endangered golden aster, and some of these rare orchids and pitcher plants thatâ€”they donâ€™t grow in a botanical garden.
They donâ€™tâ€”you canâ€™t grow them in your front yard. You can only go find them in the wild. Theyâ€™re dependent on a delicate balance of the proper lichen and symbiotic relationships that they have that you cannot recreate anywhere else. And so the future of ELAPP is to make sure that we put those other necessary puzzle pieces in place to make those connections, to strengthen that, and then to protect it for future generations to have.
EH: What do you see as the future of environmental conservation in Florida, in general?
MS: You know, we are in a really bad moment of the pendulum swinging against those of us who value the environment and value its benefit as natural resources for all of these thingsâ€”for clean air, for clean water, and for a legacy for our children, because our state has been putting the wolf in the henâ€”in charge of the henhouseâ€”and putting people in charge of protecting our environment and our nation, unfortunately, too, right now.
But I'm an optimist because I know this is not a partisan issue in the long run. I, myself, had a lot of cross-party support. ELAPP, as we know, had cross-party support. It was started by cross-party peopleâ€”coalitions. And I knowâ€”having campaigned throughout Hillsborough County, having grown up this area and traveling throughout the stateâ€”I know that people in Florida value our environment across party lines. And so I feel that this is a bad period politically, but itâ€™s happened as a result of an anomaly of forces and people who donâ€™t realize what has happened. And I know that the pendulum will swing back to the values of the people in our state.
EH: And you have such an interesting history, compared to some of the people weâ€™ve interviewed, being an environmental activist before getting on the political side of things. So to you, what is the best strategy for conservation? Like, public-private partnerships, conservation easements? What do you see as, like, the go-to strategy?
MS: Conservation easements are another great tool in the toolbox. Of course, the gold standard is what ELAPP does, in simply purchasing, acquiring the properties and then saving them totally. But conservation easement is the next line of defense toâ€”where there are people who want to continue owning the property and using the property in ways of agriculture or passive ways but are happy to sell the development rights to protect it. So yes, thatâ€™s another tool. I completely agree with Sierra Clubâ€™s philosophy, that the protection of our environment begins with getting people out in it to enjoy it. And so Sierra Clubâ€™s motto is â€œExplore, enjoy, and protect the environment,â€ and thatâ€™s becauseâ€”and â€œthe planet,â€ they say.
But here, I totally agree that it is in getting people outdoors as much as possible to experience our ELAPP lands that we get them to understand the benefit in protecting them. And so there are some people who are under the misconception that once we buy land, we put a fence around it and itâ€™s for wildlife only. No, nothing could be further from the truth. These are lands that are owned by the taxpayers, owned by the citizens of this county, and totally open to people to just get out of your car and go walk, and go enjoy it and experience it. And the more we get people doing thatâ€”so, the more I think we will preserve and safeguard these properties. So the future of ELAPP depends largely on informing citizens of what they ownâ€”of this treasure that is theirsâ€”and helping them to get out there as much as possible.
EH: So has ELAPP, or even maybe your constituents from the area that you cover, are they concerned with other environmental issues like red tide or climate change, things like that?
MS: Absolutely. And my district, by the way, is the whole county, so Iâ€™m county-wide.
MS: Uh-huh. Andâ€”which suits me because I really have experience of the whole county. And, yes, sea-level rise is very important in the bay, Tampa Bay and ourâ€”but speaking of the Bay, you know, you broughtâ€”mentioned red tide. Also the blue-green algae. And so we are right now doing some studies on how pollution is impacting some of the creeks and streams that flow into the bay, and what needs to be done with that. And our county is now looking atâ€”I am really concerned with how we can improve and transition some septic systems off into sewer systems that will keep some of the pollution out of the bay.
But again, educating and informing the public about how the fertilizer they put on their lawns ends up in the bay, fertilizing and stimulating the growth of blue-green algae and red tide. Itâ€™s not the cause of red tide, but it is food for red tide, and itâ€™s the cause ofâ€”itâ€™s the fuel for red tideâ€”keeping that going longer and stronger than it might have without our addition of nitrogen to that system.
EH: Okay. Do you ever get residents who contact you over concerns about ELAPP or ELAPP-owned lands or anything like that?
MS: So I was just elected last November, and Iâ€™m kind of new. We have not fielded a lot of calls about ELAPP. Occasionally, someone is concernedâ€”raises a concernâ€”but theyâ€™re pretty specific concerns. What we have is thousands of emails saying we are overdeveloping this county, and itâ€™s going too fast. And a lot of that email does express concerns over driving wildlife out of their wild spaces, so thereâ€™s that connection to wanting to make sure weâ€™re protecting enough habitat.
EH: So you have a long history with environmental work and ELAPP itself, so do you have any memorable moments from your time with ELAPP that just stick out to you, that youâ€™d like to share with us?
MS: Oh, my goodness. It seems like every walk that I've taken isâ€”has something withâ€”something blooming that is enchanting, or an encounter with some of my favorite butterflies. Of course, anytime I see a gopher tortoise waddling along, or even better, a clutch of newborn gopher tortoises emerging from a nest, those are magical moments. You see a swallow-tailed kite flying overhead, or a hawk feeding and crunching on something. I mean, everyâ€”probably, after you leave, I will think of oh, the perfect story I shouldâ€™ve told. But in reality, every single time I go out for a hike on ELAPP property, I am enchanted by the native azaleas blooming, or the tarflowerâ€”thereâ€™s so muchâ€”so special here.
EH: If a person came to you and asked, â€œWhy should I care about ELAPP?â€ or â€œWhy should I care about conservation efforts in Florida or in Hillsborough County?â€ what would you tell them?
MS: I would wish that I could tell them, â€œWhat are you doing this Saturday? Come out with me. Come out with me and see it.â€ I have never, ever encountered someone who says, â€œWhy should I preserve ELAPP land?â€ I have citizens who disagree with me about what we should do with growth management and what we should do with transportation planning and, â€œWe should widen roads. No, we should do transitâ€â€”I have discussion with citizens about that. Iâ€™ve never had a citizen say, â€œWhy should we preserve natural lands?â€ But if I did, you know, I would want to just take them out and show them why, yeah.
EH: Thatâ€™s great. Well, then, to wrap it up, I guessâ€”the point of this is toâ€”these interviewsâ€”are to host them so that theyâ€™re available to students and faculty and other people who want to listen, who might be interested in ELAPP or things like that, so are there any final thoughts or messages that youâ€™d like to leave with those who are listening?
MS: You know, I would justâ€”I just hope to inspire people to visit ELAPP lands, that they belong to you, they belong to your children and your childrenâ€™s children. And toâ€”if you donâ€™t know where to start, call my office, and weâ€™ll tell you where to go thatâ€™s near your neighborhood. But also look up the Tampa Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. They are taking people on outings to our ELAPP land every month. They kind of take a break over the summer months sometimes, but during the nicer weather, theyâ€™ll get back at it.
And even in the summer, theyâ€™re taking people out kayaking and canoeing, and so for people who would be shy to get out by themselves, get with Sierra Club. I donâ€™t know that Tampa Audubon does as much field trips. They kind of ebb and flow. Sometimes they doâ€”thatâ€™s another place to look, is the Tampa Audubon Society, to get out in a group of people that are being led. You donâ€™t have to join either of those organizations. You donâ€™t have to pay anything. Just go check them out online and see when theyâ€™re taking a group out, and go.
EH: Yeah, I love that. Get outside.
EH: I love that. All right, well, thatâ€™s all of the questions that I have. Thank you so much for sitting down with us and sharing your story and everything with us.
MS: And thank you for doing the work youâ€™re doing and recording these for posterity.