1934-2021: Death of environmental activist Jim Thomas | West Orange Times & Observer
Jim Thomas has done more for the environment and conservation in West Orange County than likely any other individual in this region. He created Biosphere Consulting Inc. – a native plant nursery and environmental consulting company – and founded the Friends of Lake Apopka and the Oakland Nature Preserve, two organizations dedicated to the restoration and conservation of the local environment. .
Thomas, 86, of Winter Garden, died on Sunday, September 19, 2021.
Fifth generation Florida native James Milton Thomas was born on November 10, 1934 and was drawn to nature from an early age. When he was a child, his father took him and his brothers fishing in Lake Apopka.
His love of nature continued into adulthood, and he studied biology and environmental studies at Florida State University, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree. He received an MA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and continued his graduate studies at Yale University, University of Florida, North Carolina State University, North Carolina State University, ‘University of Puerto Rico and Rutgers University.
He served briefly in the United States Army in the 1950s.
Thomas met his future wife, Peg, while they were both students at FSU. They were married on June 2, 1963 at Clearwater Methodist Church in Largo. They raised their three children in Winter Garden, where they have lived for almost 50 years.
NO BATTLE HAS BEEN TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL
Throughout his life he immersed himself in many battles for the environment, always promoting science to pave the way for healthy growth and ecological restoration.
When Lake Apopka was named one of the most polluted lakes in Florida, Thomas’s fond memories of fishing and swimming inspired him to work to improve the health of the lake.
He created the citizens’ advocacy group FOLA in 1991, and he was dedicated to the restoration and long-term management of the lake. He led political actions and fundraising efforts to bring the lake back to its former glory.
Perhaps Thomas’ greatest achievement was when he and Florida Senator Buddy Dyer approached the state legislature with a call to help restore Lake Apopka. This resulted in the
Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996, which provided millions of dollars to acquire north shore farmland and turn it into natural wetlands.
This was the crux in the recovery of Lake Apopka, and it began to heal.
In 1999, Thomas got a grant and, with the help of residents of FOLA and Oakland, worked to set aside 128 acres to create the educational nature reserve in Oakland.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Let’s restore it to its natural habitat down to the lake, but in the meantime educate the public,’” said FOLA President Joe Dunn.
The two missions would complement each other: FOLA would be the defender of the lake and ONP would provide education.
“It seemed like no battle or cause was too big or small,” said Mona Phipps, a longtime friend who has worked alongside him at Biosphere and several environmental groups. “Whether it was standing up for an owner who wanted a native plant landscape and his HOA was against it or founding Friends of Lake Apopka to lead the battle for the lake’s restoration. And, although he received several awards, he never did it for fame; he didn’t care who got the credit. He only cared to do it. He was good at creating rights groups. Always follow the science, create long and short term goals and educate your “soldiers” (party members) so everyone knows what they are talking about.
“At the very heart of who Jim Thomas was, (he) was a teacher,” said Phipps. “First, last and always. I followed him around with a notepad, and I wasn’t the only one. So much to learn and knowledge you can trust, and he always expressed things so that they could be understood.
Dunn met Thomas when Dunn and his wife bought property on the lake in 2014. Thomas taught the Dunns about the conservation area and lake protection, then convinced Dunn to join FOLA.
“It was always about the mission, the cause; it was never about him, ”said Dunn. “He was so selfless. He hijacked the praise and the glory, and he was still on what we can do to make sure this lake returns to its former glory. And that’s what I really admired about him.
Thomas received many awards and recognitions for his environmental work, but it wasn’t important for him to receive credit for taking a stand – it was more important to take a stand and make a difference.
In 2017, Thomas was named to the Florida Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame for his tireless work with Lake Apopka and his long-standing dedication to protecting the environment.
FOLA in 2019 created an annual award called the Jim Thomas Environmental Hero Award to honor Thomas and those he inspired to follow in his footsteps. The first recipient was Jim Peterson, an environmental scientist, scientific advisor to FOLA and current president of the ONP who had worked with Thomas for over 20 years to restore Lake Apopka.
That same year, ONP officially named its headquarters the Jim Thomas Environmental Education Center, and Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark proclaimed February 16, 2019 Jim Thomas Day in the city.
Thomas was known to keep notes, articles, letters, and other documents, which would result in 22 binders filled with important information about the history of Lake Apopka. They were donated to the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation.
“I have contacted UCF, and the Department of History and the Department of English will collaborate to write the story of the restoration of Lake Apopka,” said Phipps. “It’s something Jim has always wanted, so we’re going to make it happen. It will focus on 1940, when they built the tax, and move forward when it was polluted. “
“He was certainly one of a kind and a crusader for the environment in Central Florida,” Peterson said. “He was my hero, my mentor and my teacher for many years. His visions of Lake Apopka, the north shore of Lake Apopka, and the Oakland Nature Preserve all come true today. I hope we will continue to remember Jim’s environmental advocacy as an example of how to make change and raise awareness using science and education.
“Jim’s contributions to West Orange County and environmental concerns in general have been immense,” said Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark. “The City of Oakland will always be grateful for its influence and accomplishments. He will be sorely missed. “
“I will remember Jim as a quiet, substantial and environmentally efficient leader where and when attention and effort needed to be focused,” Jay Exum said of his long-time friend. date and mentor in environmental activism. “He was the only reason so much effort was put into restoring Lake Apopka, including inviting ecotourism, working with landowners and allocating key funding sources. You couldn’t get a Lake Apopka project approved without first meeting Jim Thomas to get his point of view.
“I can only imagine how many other paths have been influenced or led by Jim, and that is surely part of his legacy,” Exum said, adding that he had served on many environmental boards because of Thomas. “He, for example, showed the rest of us what we should do to make a difference, even though we might not do it as well as Jim would.”
Earlier this year, FOLA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission launched a fish tag challenge and a prize of $ 5,000 was given to the fisherman who caught the fish named in Thomas’ honor.
“Thanks to Jim’s courage and determination, the water quality of Lake Apopka has improved dramatically,” FOLA officials wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “Birds flock to the restored wetlands of the north shore, hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy the Lake Apopka Wildlife Walk, cyclists ride our lakeside trails, and fishermen learn about fishing. the rejuvenated bass. Jim Thomas’ efforts and legacy will live on for many generations to come.
Besides FOLA and ONP, Thomas founded the Friends of the Wekiva River and spent years on the Florida Wildlife Federation board of directors and the Reedy Creek Improvement District pollution control advisory board. In addition, he shared his environmental and ecological knowledge with the Orange Audubon Society, Henry Nehrling Society Inc. and several Orange County task forces.
In addition to his wife, Thomas is survived by a daughter, Ellen McNeil (and her husband James Armstrong), of St. Marys, Georgia; son, Jay (and wife Angie), of Clermont; brother, Don, Castle Rock, Colorado; grandchildren, Amadeus Cochran and Jimmy Caldwell.
The family is planning a celebration of life at a later date. Collison Carey Hand Funeral Home will take care of the arrangements.