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Up Close With Dr. Duane DeFreese


Director of the Indian River Lagoon Council
By: Eric Wright

There is an often repeated joke and even a game that everyone is connected to actor Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation. In the world of Florida conservation, chances are everyone is somehow connected to Dr. Duane DeFreese. For over three decades, Dr. DeFreese has been one of the key voices and champions of science-based, common-sense approaches to ocean and coastal conservation in Florida. Working in academia, government initiatives and private industry, Dr. DeFreese is recognized for his ability to integrate environmental, economic and social considerations into a workable vision for Florida’s future. He is the new director of the Indian River Lagoon Council and holds the position of vice chair on the Board of Directors for the Florida Ocean Alliance. He is an ardent evangelist of the “One Lagoon – One Community – One Voice” perspective, designed to link all the stakeholders along the Indian River Lagoon, which spans most of Florida’s east-central and southern coast.


I was a beach kid from Rhode Island and loved surfing; it is in my DNA. I’m still first and foremost a surfer. When I finished my undergraduate degree, my professor didn’t encourage me to go to graduate school. ‘Maybe consider being a commercial fisherman,’ was his attitude. I wanted to continue, but in a place where they had waves, so I applied and got accepted to FIT.

After grad school I was asked to be the first program director for the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program in 1991. We had a public referendum that approved matching funds to acquire properties around the Indian

River Lagoon and the Atlantic Coastal Ridge. You don’t see Floridians taxing themselves very often. Not only did we do it then, we are still doing it – it was a strong statement of public will. We received matching funds to purchase environmentally sensitive land all across the county, a sort of green infrastructure.

At first we saw it through purely environmental eyes, but 20 years later you see the potential value beyond just the environment, to enhancing our quality of life and the impact it has on the local economy. Brevard County has always been ahead of the curve in securing land that preserves the natural ambiance of the area. With the rapid development the area experienced, both the people who were born and raised here and the people who transplanted to the area, want to preserve what we have.


In addition to the public funds, the Richard King Mellon Foundation brought in $40 million to secure some of the most environmentally sensitive areas, as a part of their American Land Preservation program. Mellon, along with others, donated all of it to local, state or national government conservation entities.

I also worked for Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, which was founded in 1963 by a scientist by the name of Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, and a very clever visionary entrepreneur Milton C. Shedd. They thought if they had a for-profit tourism entertainment venue, that would teach people about the ocean, connected with a non-profit which could do research and provide good information and great stories, it would be the perfect union. In 1990 they decided to expand into Florida, but suffered from downsizing when the economy waned.


I have often said, ‘Our oceans and coasts are an engine that drives the economy and quality of life of Florida and the nation.’ I suppose my background and experience have caused me to always look at environmentalism through the lens of business, not from a purely emotional perspective.

The environment to me is one of the delivery systems into a 21st century community, almost like roads or power, which makes people want to come here and stay here. You can’t get one of these elements right and forget about the rest, they all have to be present. You have to roll the environmental piece into the larger construct that we call ‘quality of life,’ without it people and therefore businesses will not come.

For instance, the water quality in the Indian River Lagoon is either an asset that draws people here or it repels people. It is like our collective front yard; if it is polluted or there are health advisories being issued, who will be attracted to us?

Also, you don’t hear a lot about ocean and coastal economic clusters, like you do the legacy industries like aerospace or agriculture. In 2013 Florida Ocean Alliance did a report that combined ports, coastal tourism, fishing and related industry as being valued at $583 billion, in direct and indirect impact.


Universities train us to be smart and analytical, but not really entrepreneurial, especially in the scientific community. Also, business is usually cast as the scapegoat for environmental problems. The older I get the more I see a needed synthesis between the two, rather than conflict. Sure, there are businesses that are bad examples, which haven’t thought through the total value proposition, and opted for profits over responsibility.

The resources both natural and academic along the Indian River Lagoon I could argue are some of the best in the United States. In fact, this could be considered one of the hubs of ocean and coastal research. For all that talent to be focused on solving, particularly our water problems will take investment. I am a huge fan of the space program, but frankly we don’t have the same sense of mission and investment to clean water that we do to space exploration. There is a mental disconnect with what Buckminster Fuller described as ‘Spaceship Earth.’

Imagine Florida as the first clean water state in the nation, as a global leader in water technology? I met Dick Nunis through a company called Aqua Fiber and my UCF network; he is one of the brightest guys I have met, the former president and chairman of Walt Disney attractions. He called Disney World a ‘Blue Sky Dream.’ That is how we have to see environmentalism and water quality – a Blue Sky Dream.

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  • Thank you, Eric for this important article. We need to bring business and conservation together to vision a pollution-free future. The technology is there.