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James Milton Thomas had a voice that resounded with authority, manners that hewed to civility, a calling to teach and selfless devotion to Central Florida’s forests, waters and wildlife.
During his more than 50 years of advocacy for wildlife and habitat, Thomas gained a legacy ranking among the region’s most trusted and accomplished environmental leaders.
With his health in decline for a couple of years, the Florida native, Winter Garden resident and ceaseless champion of reviving the ailing Lake Apopka died Sunday at age 86.
“He’s a personal hero of mine and an amazing guy for what he’s done,” said Joe Dunn, president of Friends of Lake Apopka, which Thomas founded in 1991 and then led for years.
“He was always about the cause,” Dunn said. “He always deflected anything about him.”
Thomas lived for most of his adult life in Central Florida and was a community college teacher of biology from early on.
Jim Thomas of Winter Garden was one of Central Florida’s most respected environmentalists. (XX)
In the late 1960s, he was active in Orange Audubon Society and served as its president from 1969 to 1971.
Orange Audubon’s current president, Deborah Green, said that during that era, many members of the group focused on birdwatching but Thomas pivoted to sounding an alarm over broader conservation issues as the region began its long streak of explosive growth.
Of Thomas’ talents and strengths, one would become his trademark in advocating for environmental protections, Green said. “People listened to him,” she said. “Not many people had his kind stature.”
Also in those Audubon days, Thomas teamed up with the famed “Eagle Lady,” Doris Mager who, in 1979, raised start-up money for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland by living in an abandoned eagle nest for a week.
Mager, 95, and still conducting education programs about birds of prey in the state of Washington, said Thomas was a teacher with motivation.
“When my son was 17 he enrolled at the community college in Orlando where Jim was a professor who taught Billy, my son, who is now 70 years old,” Mager said.
“As far as Jim and I, we led birding tours together to the Galapagos and Central America,” Mager said. “He did not procrastinate. He didn’t sit around and think about what to do. He did it.”
Jim Thomas, founder of Friends of Lake Apopka and Oakland Nature Preserve, walks by a fence at the preserve. Photo was taken in 2009. (Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel)
Shifting from Audubon, Thomas joined with a handful of other environmentalists to take up the cause of the endangered Wekiva River.
Now a beloved treasure north of Orlando, the Wekiva and its dozens of springs were threatened by large-scale development proposed for its shorelines and adjoining forests.
“He always treated people with respect,’ said Pat Harden, who with her husband, Fred, Russ Fischer, Russ and Katie Moncrief and others formed Friends of the Wekiva River in the early 1980s.
“All of his arguments were made from knowledge, logic and rationale,” Harden said. “I’ve seen him mad but not in public. He was a good diplomat and I don’t know anyone who did not respect him.”
Thomas took a turn serving as the group’s president. Harden and her husband also would take turns as president, and she would go on to serve for eight years as a board member, with two years as chair of the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The Friends of the Wekiva River was instrumental in passage of state legislation and funding for protecting the spring-fed environment.
In 1991, Thomas took his advocacy efforts home to Winter Garden, to launch what then seemed futile —rescuing Lake Apopka from decades of pollution and restoring it to its glories as a renowned fishing destination.
“We wrote Lake Apopka off years ago,” Thomas said that year. “There were too many smoke screens, too many political shenanigans. People just lost interest.”
As founder and president of Friends of Lake Apopka, Thomas initially urged state authorities to regulate the thousands of acres of farms discharging polluted waters into the lake. But after a series of legal setbacks, Thomas changed his mind.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was a state senator in 1996 when he introduced legislation that led to a $100 million buyout of nearly 15,000 acres of farms adjoining Lake Apopka.
It is Florida’s fourth-largest lake and provides expansive, waterfront scenery for Winter Garden, Oakland and other communities.
Jim Thomas walks along a 3,000-foot boardwalk at the Oakland Nature Preserve that leads to Lake Apopka. Photo was taken in 2005. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)
“It was through the great work of Jim and the Friends of Lake Apopka that we were able to do that,” Dyer said. “Lake Apopka is better off today because of the work of Jim Thomas.”
Joe Kilsheimer, former mayor of Apopka and former president of Friends of Lake Apopka, said Thomas believed even during the lake’s worst days that it could be brought back. “And he was right.”
In fighting for the lake, Thomas often exerted his willpower upon the St. Johns River Water Management District, the custodian of Lake Apopka and restoration efforts. He alternated between badgering and supporting agency staff.
“Where Jim really succeeded was staying close to the facts and staying close to what we really understood and not being hyperbolic,” said Erich Marzolf, the water district’s division director for water and land resources. “As a scientist, I very much appreciated that.”
Thomas supported himself financially by a business called Biosphere Consulting in Winter Garden. The company provided expertise for restoring forests and waterfronts to natural conditions. Biosphere also operated a nursery for supplying clients with native plants such as bulrush, pickerelweed, cypress and maple.
“Jim could recognize any plant; he could recognize jurisdictional wetland lines – and birds, plants, animals – he was a biologist,” said Zen Silva, Biosphere general manager for more than 20 years. “There’s so much he’s done I couldn’t even touch on all of it.”
In 1997, Thomas established the Oakland Nature Preserve on more than 100 acres of forest and wetlands at the edge of Lake Apopka.
Much of the property in Oakland then was a scruffy leftover of abandoned citrus grove. Thomas restored the site to natural conditions, leaning heavily on donations of cash and labor.
The preserve features a long, winding boardwalk through heavy wetland canopy to a view of Lake Apopka. There are trails, classrooms and exhibits, all arising from Thomas’ calling as an educator.
Within the preserve is the Jim Thomas Environmental Education Center, a name he tried unsuccessfully to discourage, Dunn said.
Longtime assistant Mona Phipps, who had administrative roles at Friends of Lake Apopka, Biosphere and the Oakland Nature Preserve, said that Thomas advocated through teaching.
“When people got around him, they listened,” Phipps said. “He was able to put things in a way people understood and could buy into.”
“He also knew where he was willing to draw a line and compromise,” Phipps said. “He knew that oftentimes that was the only way to move forward. I’m not saying he gave up much and I’m not saying he didn’t fight his hardest.”
Thomas is survived by his wife of 60 years, Margaret. Because of COVID-19, arrangements with Collison Carey Hand Funeral Home in Winter Garden are yet to be determined.