Public Servicewoman & Water Protector
Interviewed by Shareshten Senior
Maggy Hurchalla is a real living American hero. Her quest to protect the environment started with her intention to save the Florida wetlands in the 70’s. She first took action with the Martin County Water Board in 1972, and for over 45 years she has been a pioneer of preservation for the treasure coast of Florida. Hurchalla went on to serve 5 terms as Martin County Commissioner, spanning 20 years time. She is well loved by the people for her fighting spirit and jovial, humorous personality.
If she likes you enough to invite you over (and it’s likely she will because she loves people), you will most likely find yourself in a canoe with Maggy. I was lucky enough to take a ride with her through the mystical mangroves of the Indian River, where she gave me a tour as if she were showing me around her kitchen, encouraging me to help myself to the nourishment readily available. Like any great teacher, her real gift is in teaching others to see things they couldn’t see before. Indeed, although she may not know it, she is a true embodiment of Shakti – the playful, nurturing, and just force of creation that aims to set all things in their right place.
I sat down with Hurchalla after our boat tour to talk with her about her preservation work with the wetlands, and to ask bigger questions that would reflect her amazing outlook on life.
"It sounds like a cliché, but Elmer Gantry was right:
'Love is the morning and the evening star.'"
Shakti Journal: First of all, thank you for blazing a path for the people who care about protecting our environment and our precious water. You inspire so many to be proactive and to never give up. How do you keep yourself so positive? How do you keep charging on in the face of opposition?
Maggy Hurchalla: It sounds like a cliché, but Elmer Gantry was right: “Love is the morning and the evening star.” I was born lucky into a family that gave unqualified love. I’ve been married for 57 years to the most wonderful man in the world. I have four wonderful children and two wonderful grandchildren and cousins and nieces and nephews and wonderful friends. It’s not just the people I love. I get high on wild places. My joy in ocean waves and deep blue reefs and wild rivers and mountaintops and swamps has been just as much a warm blanket of love and laughter.
SJ: Do you feel the free press is in trouble? Why or why not?
Hurchalla: I come from a family of journalists. At 77, my greatest fear is that newspapers will die before I do. I do believe the free press is in trouble and that means the very basis of our democracy is in trouble. It’s easy to blame leaders, but leaders lead where someone wants to go. I’m not sure why, but I think we are too anxious to hear what we want to hear instead of exploring and learning about what we don’t know. I expect that has to do with the pace of change and the fear of change.
SJ: Do you have a news source you trust?
Hurchalla: Not a single one. What works in the world of facts are checks and balances rather than all-knowing sources of truth. Science is never built on one experiment or the opinion of one scientist. It is built on the hypothesis of hope and the skepticism of having results independently verified. The world of news and facts should be treated the same way.
SJ: You have recently been hit with a $4 million dollar lawsuit, filed and won by George Lindemann Jr.’s rock pit company. They claimed that you interfered with government contracts by presenting environmental health warnings to the county commissioners. This sounds like civic duty to me, yet I see similar situations going on with other environmental issues like logging, fracking, and oil pipelines. Can you elaborate on this? What is going on with corporate interests completely silencing public safety concerns?
Hurchalla: First, it’s a “SLAPP suit”. That’s a strategic lawsuit against public participation. It’s a way for those with money and power to use the costs and fear of litigation as a weapon to make critics shut up. Second, it’s a new interpretation of the first amendment that says that if a corporate contract is involved, you lose your free speech privilege to tell your government officials what they are doing wrong.
I am proud and happy that Professors Canan and Pring have joined a dozen groups asking to file ‘friend of the court’ briefs on my behalf. They literally wrote the book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out.
In their motion they state that the case “has all of the most common and obvious characteristics of a SLAPP,” and that “in the 30 years Professors Canan and Pring have studied SLAPPs, they have rarely seen a case that so obviously fits the definition, so clearly violates the First Amendment’s Petition Clause, and yet was unrecognized and mishandled by the trial court.” This is a national effort to change what the Bill of Rights means. This change will affect all advocacy groups but will be especially damaging to local environmental advocates trying to make the world a better place.
I’m also proud to stand with Greenpeace in their SLAPP that is being pursued by a large timber company, and the Standing Rock Sioux who are being attacked for their advocacy on the Dakota Access pipeline.
SJ: You have a special passion for the wetlands of Florida. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes them so special and why you have felt moved to protect them and honor them?
Hurchalla: People understand something of the magic of the bigger wetlands like the Everglades or the Okefenokee Swamp – both of which I’ve been happily lost in. I’ve tried to make them understand the value of the diversity of small flatwoods wetlands that make up so much of Florida. If God hadn’t liked them, he would not have made so many.
They remind me of Chesterton’s line “We should admire puddles. They are full of light and reflect infinity.” It is that diversity, starting with the smallest wetlands, that make possible the immensity of gorgeous wading birds that are so much a part of Florida’s wild places. They make egrets and herons and ibis possible and they make lovely sunrise and sunset reflections.
SJ: What do you see working well in society, activism, and social change? Do you see examples of efforts that could be modeled off of?
Hurchalla: Everything: Diversity. Passion. Honesty. Research. Courage. There are flamethrowers who are criticized for being too passionate. But without them out front, the calmer more polite groups would get no hearing at all. Then there are those who stick to research and shy away from the loud and angry world of public policy. We need monitoring and research to prove what works in solving the world’s problems.
I am a hopeful believer in democracy. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I’m not for a bloody revolution where we kill each other in the name of peace.
At 77, my greatest fear is that newspapers will die before I do. I do believe the free press is in trouble and that means the very basis of our democracy is in trouble.
SJ: Since you are a life-long environmentalist, daughter of an independent journalist, and a local politician, what advice from your own life can you offer to the younger generations?
Hurchalla: My sister and I always liked Harry Truman’s line, “Always do right. You will gratify a few and astonish the rest.” And don’t forget to enjoy the awe and wonder of the places you are trying to save. One more thing you learn with age: You will, like Sisyphius in the Greek myth, push a whole lot of rocks up the hill that then rolls them back down on top of you. Keep trying. Sometimes we win one for the Earth.
Shakti Journal: Congratulations on the unfettered support through this lawsuit — here is one quote I was thrilled to read from Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation: “The First Amendment Foundation is proud to support Maggy Hurchalla in her appeal and her fight to protect her First Amendment rights. We’re doubly proud, too, to be joined in our support by citizen-activist Fane Lozman and a robust and diverse group of public service organizations from across Florida.”
“We encourage citizens to engage with their government, and they should feel free to express concerns without the fear of being bullied or coerced into silence. By standing up, by refusing to be bullied, Maggy Hurchalla stands up for all of us and our First Amendment right to petition our government. We owe Maggy not only our support, but our deepest gratitude.” (Capital Soup)
Shakti Journal agrees wholeheartedly. How can we support you through your appeal? Is there somewhere we can donate? Has a petition been started on behalf of the people to show support?
Maggy Hurchalla: See www.slappmaggy.com (two p’s). It has all sorts of information on the case. Donations are much appreciated and the site tells how. All donations will go towards legal costs and nothing goes to me personally. If there is anything left over, it will go to a non-profit that defends SLAPP victims.
Finally, what I would tell you to do, is to love and laugh and do what is right. And don’t forget to watch the sunsets.