Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Mark Walters becomes new chair of Sierra Club Florida

Mark Walters
Sierra Club Florida has passed the torch to a new chair: Winston “Mark” Walters from Miami. Walters, who has served in local, state and national roles since the 1990s, takes the helm from Debbie Matthews, who served in the role for four years, but will stay on as chair of the Group Advisory Council.

Walters, a brain and spinal researcher at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, was introduced by a friend to the Club’s Inner City Outings Program, now called Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO).  When he got there, “I saw that 95 percent of the kids were black and there were no other black adults. I considered it an obligation,” said Walters, a Jamaican native.

For many of the kids, he said, it was the first time they had been kayaking or snorkeling. At the end of a weekend trip to Myakka, he recalls a child saying he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to stay out there. “That was priceless to me.”

“I think it has changed a lot of their lives.” Some kids, he said, are now in college and volunteering. Others have kids of their own.

Mark has been an ICO volunteer ever since, serving at the chapter level and on the ICO national steering committee.  “It’s what I love. It’s where I came into the Club. I see just how valuable it is.”

Mark said one of his chief goals is to keep the chapter functioning efficiently, especially in light of recent environmental attacks by the State of Florida. “A few people with resources end up dictating to us what our landscapes should look like,” he said.

“These are going to be tough fights. We can see that already. I just want to make sure the chapter has the resources to support all of our volunteers in those fights. So many things are happening politically, and we are right in the fray.”

He says he is dismayed by the “overall disregard the current legislature has for the will of the voters,” including the raiding of Amendment 1 funds for non-conservation purposes. He also was critical of the recent bear hunt and “the way they cavalierly went on with it,” and the DEP’s plans to allow cattle grazing and oil drilling in our state parks. “That doesn’t belong there,” he said. “These are our property. These are our parks. “

Despite the challenges, he believes the Sierra Club will prevail. “We have awesome volunteers. We’re going to do it.”

On Climate Change: 

“Primary is education. We need to educate more people in the role of climate change and to put the right infrastructure in place. I have an 8-year-old, and I am worried about what kind of world she’s going to have to live with. What we do now is what they will inherit.  Sierra Club must continue to speak truth to power and put pressure on our elected officials to do what needs to be done.”

On the importance of local nature:  

“We subscribe to nature as big nature. We think of it as a national park. There are lots of places, if we broaden our scope. I spend a lot of time in my kayak. We have access to the ocean. The issue is not enough people are educated about the wealth of what’s available."

Nothing demonstrates this more to Walters than Virginia Key, a natural island in Biscayne Bay, just a few minutes from downtown Miami. Sometimes Walters picks up his daughter in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, a high-density patch of skyscrapers, and drives out to Virginia Key.

"Virginia Key has to be my favorite right now. It’s right here in the middle of the city, but you can feel like you’re miles away.”

Debbie Matthews
Sierra Club says farewell to Debbie Mathews as chapter chair (but she’s not going anywhere ):

Debbie Matthews steps down as chapter chair after serving four years, but she will continue to serve as Group Advisory Council (GAC) Chair.

Matthews said the best part of the job was “working with amazing staff and team members.”

“We’ve been able to do lots of great rallies and great community partnering. We had a close knit team able to react to things that were thrown at us.”

She said the best accomplishment was having consistent meetings every quarter and getting most of the groups there and having the opportunity to bridge the gap between groups, state and national.

On accomplishments:

"I feel leaders are more open to being involved in action committees. We’ve been able to grow and have more positive exposure to the Club. Our lobbyist Dave Cullen has really established his name out there, and we now have an administrative lobbyist, Stephanie Kunkel.”

On State of Florida:

“When you feel like it can’t get any worse, it can get worse. They are trying every underhanded thing they can. From Amendment One on down, I can’t think of one positive thing they’ve done.”
“I’m hoping we can start getting more green-minded people and getting Rick Scott out of there, maybe sooner than his term limit.”

On climate change: 

"We are on the cusp. I’ve seen the change with high tides [while rowing] on the water. It will just keep amplifying and getting worse."

Favorite natural place in Florida:

"That’s hard because we have such biodiversity. Pinelands in the Everglades. Fanning Springs State Park. Our springs are just gorgeous. They are an endangered ecosystem."