The October issue of the North Central Florida Edition of Natural Awakenings contains an article featuring Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson called “Conservation Efforts,” by Martin Miron. The article gives a good deal of biographical information on Merrillee, her philosophy and goals, and also identifies her as member and past president of OSFR, as well as a Sierra Club employee.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Conservation Efforts Looking Like Whack-A-Mole
by Martin Miron
When the National Sierra Club expanded Florida’s offices and added three more employees, selecting Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson was an easy choice to be a new organizing representative for the Sierra Club of North Florida. She had already been part of the nonprofit Our Santa Fe River for 10 years, a local environmental watchdog group that spreads education and awareness about the growing danger to the river and its precious watershed from a variety of agricultural, mining and habitat threats.
The new location was chosen because the Rum 138 business building is a destination in itself, with boat rentals and a fine art gallery; it’s also centrally located among the townships of Lake City, Live Oak and Gainesville, “We also can have events here, with ample parking and a stage,” says Malwitz-Jipson. “It’s great because it’s a rural location that gets people out of the city and into the environment, which is truly magical.”
Malwitz-Jipson and Sierra Club Senior Campaign Organizer Cris Costello were well acquainted. “We had worked together on the Clean Water campaign, among other interests, including reducing nitrate loading and urban fertilizer. She was aware of the work I was doing here and wasn’t getting paid,” she notes. “Our Santa Fe River was a total volunteer organization: I was president, I was policy director and I was a board member. They didn’t really have to train me too hard, and they knew I was able to accomplish what they had intended.”
How Malwitz-Jipson got involved in conservation is a family legacy. “My mother has that lifestyle where she is deeply concerned for the environment that she lives in, and taught my brother and me how to have that type of sensitivity to our surroundings and to have a voice,” she says. Her mom’s background is in protecting bird species in Montana. “I always have lived near the water and always have been concerned about water. I chose to live in Fort White with my husband [a professional videographer] when we made the decision to move from St. Petersburg looking for fresh, clean water,” she states.
“Because we had been mostly city dwellers, we chose this area because of all the springs. We were beginning to raise a family and concerned about raising our children in an urban environment. We wanted them to have a similar experience to what we had. I wanted to teach them about protecting nature and why it’s important. it’s been a charmed existence, and the kids certainly are understanding more every day about why we literally live in the woods on the river.”
A practicing artist with a fine art degree from the Ringling College of Art & Design, Malwitz-Jipson started participating in art shows and fairs in urban areas like Gainesville. Then she used her cosmetology license for doing hair in the High Springs area. “I knew that if I got back into the hair world, I could meet people. I didn’t know anybody when we moved here. Some very nice women let me work in their shop and I got to learn everything about everybody. You know how a hair salon is. I was able to learn from all their experiences and stories what was important to protect Florida,” she says.
Her cosmetology work continued until recently. “It was a wonderful experience, and I just gave up the hair business to take the Sierra Club job, because it was frankly a little bit too much to do both,” she shares. “I came up here from South Florida, where I saw what people can do to the world, so I’m sensitive to that, and I try to explain to anybody who’s willing to listen that development will come—but you’ve got to make development work so you don’t endanger your livelihood or your community or your environment. So I’m trying to explain that to people even as they sat in my chair. They were like, ‘Who are you?’ Here I was, concerned about all these huge issues. I would go to a meeting and then for the next week, I would tell all my clients what went on at this government meeting, and they were like, ‘Did that really happen? Is that how things are done?’ Now they are all very well educated.”
Noting it is obvious that agriculture rules every aspect of North Florida, she cites a very large industrial chicken farm established in a sensitive location between two springs, and that although there were strong concerns and meetings held by the community, the project was approved by county officials.
After making her family’s home here, Malwitz-Jipson is not about to surrender to outside interests without a fight. As in many places across America, there are multiple fronts in the conservation battle, and at the top of her list is the Sabal Trail fracked gas pipeline that will bring fossil fuel from Alabama through Georgia to the FPL generator at Indiantown, in Martin County, and also to Citrus County for the Duke Energy power plant through the most sensitive aquifer in the country—right in our backyards. At the end of the line, there is a growing concern that much of it will be liquefied at new liquid natural gas plants to be shipped all over the world.
The pipeline has established a right-of-way through the middle of the Florida springs heartland —the most productive aquifer in the entire world. For now, it might be used to transport gas, but in the future, ownership of this corridor leaves the possibility to move water itself southward. “The Sierra Club recognized all the good work that I’ve done and that I’m also on the steering committee for banning fracking in Florida.” says Malwitz-Jipson. “We’ve had tons of success, and I helped create that ordinance/resolution program we run with counties and cities.” She is also a Red Tide Campaign organizer, working with citizens to ban phosphate mining on the New River and establish restroom facilities along recreationally used access points on the Santa Fe River.
There will organized protests throughout Florida to stop the Sabal Trail pipeline. For more information, call Malwitz-Jipson at 352-222-8893, email [email protected] or visit ssjsierra.org.