For Climate Action, let’s protect our democracy, Part 1 

Photo of Brian Ettling taken on November 15, 2023.

‘In order to fix the climate crisis, we need to fix the democracy crisis.’
– Former Vice President Al Gore

This is the toughest blog for me to write. In fact, I have devoted the last year to blogging and writing about my life story and blogging for years before that. This was the blog I knew it was vital for me to write, but I dreaded writing this blog. For the past 23 years, I have not felt that environmentalists, climate advocates, progressives and Democratic leaning voters were smart about electing Presidential, state level, and local candidates who would protect our environment, planet, and our democracy.

This is a very painful blog to write, but I feel like I have no choice to share but to share my story. In the process of writing this blog, I discovered that I wrote so many pages that I am breaking this into an 8-part blog story. Hopefully, someone can learn from my disappointment and letdown I felt from environmental and climate Democratic voters who allowed awful candidates for President and other elected offices win.

Part 1: My 1980s childhood in Missouri to witnessing 2000 Presidential Election in Florida

Growing up in Missouri with the American Dream in the 1970s and 1980s

I grew up in Oakville, Missouri, a suburb in the south part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. My childhood and teen years where in the 1970s into the 1980s. I am old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when inflation and stagflation was high, and the malaise of the late 1970s. I was a kid in the late 70s and 1980 just happy to ride my bike, play with my Star Wars toys, and enjoy touch football with neighborhood friends. Yet, I remember my parents and other adults feeling somber with the inflation, hostage crisis, the 1980 boycott of the summer Olympics, and the direction of the country.

I was a 12-year-old kid fascinated with the nightly news anchored by Walter Cronkite and the humorous monologues of the Johnny Carson commenting on the times. At the time, it seemed like a positive shift in the country when Ronald Reagan became President. He projected confidence with his sunny disposition and a conservative simplistic governing philosophy that I could understand at that age, ‘government bad, private sector good.’ Reagan was President from when I was in 6th grade until I started college in 1988. Growing up on Reagan, he seemed someone like a grandpa figure for me that felt like he was good for America at that time.

This was the 1980s when capitalism, money, and wealth were overly idealized in the U.S. The popular TV shows in America and our home at that time was Dallas, Dynasty, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I graduated from high school in 1987. I had no idea what to do with my life, so I took a gap year to travel a bit in the U.S. and work at the neighborhood gas station.

Brian Ettling graduating from Oakville High School, just south of St. Louis, Missouri

During that time, I was enthralled with the move Wall Street and Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. Like Trump, I wanted to be a success in business and be rich. As I became 20 years old, America seemed like the perfect democracy. It was ‘the land of opportunity’ if one just worked hard enough in business and the free enterprise system.

To pursue that dream, I decided I would major in Business Administration when I started my freshman year at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, which is just outside of Kansas City. I enjoyed my business classes. However, I could see that I was too much of a free spirit to spend my entire work career in an office cubicle and trapped inside an office building. I wanted to be outside or at least working close to the great outdoors. While I attended college, a recruiter for A Christian Ministries in the National Parks (ACMNP) convinced me to work a summer job in the national parks. They would find a concession job for me in the parks if I agreed to help lead interdenominational Christian church services on Sundays. At that time, I was very religious, so that seemed like a good deal for me.

Leaving Missouri to work summers at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

I graduated from William Jewell College on May 17, 1992. That evening, I stepped on board an Amtrak train on a three-day train ride to take me from Kansas City to Los Angeles. I then changed trains in Los Angeles to take the very scenic Coast Starlight train from LA to Klamath Falls, Oregon. The train ride was phenomenal to see the Pacific Ocean beaches in Santa Barbara, watch the train weave into the Mediterranean interior climate of San Luis Obispo and then head up towards the Bay Area. We arrived at the Oakland Train station late at night to see the city lights of the East Bay, the sparkling twinkling lights of San Francisco, and the lights of the majestic bridges that span across the wide bay.

I woke up the next morning with the train veering around the massive snowcapped Mt. Shasta. Growing up in the low elevation of the Midwest, I had always dreamed of living close to mountains with snow on top. As the train wheels squealed going around the huge mountain. I felt like I had arrived in my new home. Mt. Shasta was a very welcoming sight for my blurry eyes that did not get much sleep sitting in the train coach seat that night.

A Crater Lake gift store park employee named Kevin picked me up at the Klamath Falls, Oregon train station. As we drove over an hour to get to Crater Lake National Park, I was so anxious to see it that I kept asking Kevin soon after the drive started, ‘Will we see the lake after we go over this next ridge?’ He assured me that we would see it on this drive. I just had to be patient. To make small talk, I asked Kevin about the dumb questions that visitors ask the employees. He said that he had heard that visitors sometimes asked park employees, ‘What time of year do the deer turn into elk?’

I laughed and responded, ‘Ha! That’s funny! How could they ask such a thing?’ Internally, I was thinking: ‘I don’t know a thing about deer or elk or really anything else about the park. I am going to have to learn quickly!’

When I saw Crater Lake for the first time on May 20, 1992, it changed my life. The scenery did not disappoint. Crater Lake was one of the most spectacular sights I saw in my life. The lake was 6 miles across at its widest point with this deep cobalt blue color. The rim mountains that surrounded it were decorated with snow, looking like an amazing cake decoration with the white icing on top. The pine trees where so tall, unlike the much smaller deciduous or leaf producing trees in my home state of Missouri. It was so quiet standing on the rim admiring the lake, except for the very light whistle of the wind and an occasional airplane flying overhead.

Seeing Crater Lake for the first time reminded me of a quote I later read from the founder of Crater Lake National Park, William Gladstone Steel. He saw it for the first time on August 15, 1885. One year afterwards, he wrote:

“Crater Lake is one of the grandest points of interest on earth. Here all the ingenuity of nature seems to have been exerted to the fullest capacity, to build one grand, awe-inspiring temple, within which to live and from which to gaze up on the surrounding world and say: ‘Here would I dwell and live forever. Here would I make my home from choice; the universe is my kingdom, and this is my throne.’”

I loved my summers at Crater Lake. I spent the summers of 1992-94 working in the Crater Lake gift store. Because this was a seasonal job, I had to find a different place to work in the winter.

Brian Ettling at Crater Lake National Park. Photo taken on November 3, 1992.

Spending my winters working in Everglades National Park, Florida

I had to find another seasonal job for the winter in those months to mark time before returning to Crater Lake for the summer. Fortunately, the peak season for Everglades National Park visitation in Florida was from late November to early April. I arrived at the Flamingo Outpost in Everglades National Park in December 1992. My first job was working in housekeeping. I then transferred to a Front Desk job at the Flamingo Lodge.

Unlike Crater Lake, I was disappointed with my first views of the Everglades. The sawgrass prairie, which made up much of the park, looked as flat as the eye could see. It looked like a Midwest farm field, not at all like the iconic western national parks with towering mountains. The only high features in the Everglades were the lofty clouds that I had to imagine they were as high and dominating as the Rocky Mountains, Cascades or Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges.

My seasonal housing unit looked out into the subtropical Florida Bay, which made up the lower third of Everglades National Park. Numerous mangrove islands dotted the shallow Florida Bay. In the western part of the bay, the water blended into the Gulf of Mexico. As a child growing up in the landlocked St. Louis, Missouri, I dreamed of living close to the ocean to see that horizon line where the ocean met the sky with no land to interfere. Flamingo was probably the cheapest place in Florida to live next to the ocean, even if Florida Bay was considered an estuary, a place where inland freshwater met and mixed with seawater from the ocean.

It felt very tranquil to live by so much water. Surrounding our housing area and Flamingo were subtropical mangrove trees living in the shallow waters and coconut palms stood by the higher solid grounds of the buildings. The Everglades had a fascinating variety of wildlife with alligators, crocodiles, dolphins, manatees, deer, raccoons, and a wide variety of colorful wading birds. November to April is the dry season in the Everglades where it rains occasionally and is most sunny most of the time. The high temperature from December to April is in the upper 70s to lower 80s. South Florida is a fun place to comfortably wear shorts in the depths of winter.

To mark time until I could return to Crater Lake, I made the best out of working winters in the Everglades. I relished exploring all around the park and seeing the unique wildlife I saw, such as alligators, crocodiles, dolphins, manatees, and the wide variety of birds. The canoeing in the Everglades was a fabulous experience. My high point was the overnight canoe trip with friends to Alligator Creek and Florida Bay in February 1993.

Brian Ettling in Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo taken in mid April 1993.

Reading books t deepen my connection with the national parks and the environment

In my first year of working in the national parks, I yearned to read everything about them. I bought picture books and guidebooks on the national parks, hoping to see them all someday. I wanted to learn the history of our national parks, so I purchased at the Crater Lake gift store, Regreening The National Parks. This was a 1992 book by Michael Frome, a conservationist writer and Professor of Environmental Journalism at the Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. In this book, Frome critiqued the over commercialization of the national parks and offers advice on the policies needed to truly protect them.

While working at the front desk of the Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park in January 1998, I had a chance encounter with Michael Frome. I recognized his name while checking him into the hotel. I complimented him on his book, and he appreciated my kind words. When he checked out the next day, he generously signed my copy of his book.

Besides Frome’s book, I read Dr. Tony Campolo’s 1992 book, How to Rescue the Earth Without Saving Nature: A Christian’s Call to Save Creation. At that time, I was a devout Christian with leading ACMNP Sunday church services at the campground amphitheaters at Crater Lake and Everglades National Parks. I felt a calling to save the environment, the national parks, and our planet in a way that honored God. I knew Dr. Campolo as a fantastic public speaker. He spoke twice to William Jewell College when I was a student. He was known as a progressive evangelical Christian theologian. He was a professor of sociology at Eastern College in Pennsylvania.

During my first winter in the Everglades, I figured one of the best ways to learn about it was to read the 1987 book Voice of the River by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the mother of Everglades National Park. She ended up having a big impact on my life when I became a naturalist guide in Flamingo in 1998 and an environmental advocate for the Everglades. Unlike Dr. Tony Campolo, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was not religious at all. She did not seem to have much use for it. She ended her book with a quote that had a huge reverberation within me. She wrote,

“I believe that life should be lived so vividly and so intensely that thoughts of another life, or a longer life, are not necessary.”

Marjory was a huge voice speaking out for the protection of the Everglades and the natural environment. She lived as an outspoken advocate for the Everglades until she died in 1998 at the age of 108 years old. Even though she was an atheist, I thought at that time, ‘If there is a heaven and Marjory is not there, no one deserves to be there.’

I think Tony Campolo would have agreed with me on that point. Both Marjory and Tony loved people and getting to the truth of the matter. I think if they had ever met, they would have really liked each other.

Brian Ettling’s copy of Voice of the River by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He purchased this book in the Everglades in 1993.

In early 1993, another book that had a massive influence on me was the 1992 book Earth in the Balance by Al Gore. He wrote the book while he as a U.S. Senator from the state of Tennessee. The book came to my attention when he ran for Vice President in 1992 as Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign running mate. The book examined the threat to our planet’s environment from global warming, pollution, and deforestation. I thought that the book was very compelling, well researched, and very insightful how humans were threatening life on our planet and ourselves.

To back up, in November 1992, I supported Ross Perot for President. My thinking was then the federal deficit and debt had greatly increased under President George H.W. Bush. I considered myself to be a fiscal conservative then and I did not find Bush to be an effective leader. At the same time, I was intrigued for years by Al Gore with his strong stands to protect the environment. My older sister shared with me afterwards her favorite moment of the Vice-Presidential Debate between Vice President Dan Quayle, Admiral James Stockdale and Al Gore on October 13, 1992. Forty two minutes into the debate, Dan Quayle attacked Al Gore for supposed statements made in the book. After Quayle finished attacking Al Gore, he responded, ‘Dan, I appreciate that you read my book.’

My older sister said she laughed when she saw that on TV and she noticed laughter from some members in the audience at the debate. Thus, I was curious to Gore’s book. I found it to be a very helpful reference for the global environmental problems happening at that time. I remember thinking, ‘Thank God that Al Gore is our Vice President. After reading his book I became a big admirer of Al Gore. I still considered myself to be a Republican at that time. By 1996, I voted for Bill Clinton to be re-elected as President primarily because Al Gore was his Vice President. To me, Gore seemed to be by far the strongest environmental champion in politics. I eagerly looked forward to supporting and voting for him for President in 2000.

Becoming a Crater Lake park ranger and a naturalist guide in Everglades National Park

I left the Everglades in the middle of April 1993 to return to work at the Crater Lake National Park Gift Store for the summer. I briefly worked at Furnace Creek in Death Valley during the spring of 1994 before working again at the Crater Lake gift store for the summer. The General Manager of the Crater Lake concessionaire talked me into working the night auditor position at the rehabilitated Crater Lake Lodge during the grand re-opening summer of 1995. I quickly discovered that working graveyard shifts was not my cup of tea. I was sleeping during the daytime beauty of Crater Lake.

In 1996, the National Park Service (NPS) hired me to be an Entrance Station ranger at Crater Lake. I wore the ranger uniform with pride as I welcomed visitors to Crater Lake and charged them the $5 entrance fee. I was working in a tiny entrance station booth, which was more like a box. The park entrance road was surrounded by the tall skinny lodgepole pine trees. Except for the stream of vehicle traffic in the summer, it felt like I was working in the woods.

For the summer of 1997, it was soul satisfying to return to this Crater Lake entrance station ranger job. That summer NPS changed the job title to Visitor Use Assistant. I did not care what they called me. I was delighted to spend my summers at Crater Lake. Yet, I found myself drawn to spend my winters working in Everglades National Park.

I skipped two winters, 1993-94 and 1994-95, to spend time with family in St. Louis. I returned to Flamingo in the 1995-96 winter to work as a night auditor at the lodge front desk. I thought I would use my Business Administration college degree to do this accounting job to balance the lodge’s daily receipts. Like my 1995 summer at Crater Lake, I was a glutton for punishment working this overnight job. It was stressful to complete all the office work in time. The computers were finicky and glitchy with no one around to assist if I ran into technical issues. The sleep schedule was brutal and hard on my dating relationship at that time. I vowed to never do that job again.

I skipped working in the Everglades in 1996 to 1997 to visit family in St. Louis. It was good to be home that winter because to be at the hospital hours after my oldest niece and goddaughter, Rachel was born. When I returned to Everglades National Park in November 1997, I worked front desk at the Flamingo Lodge. In early January 1998, a naturalist guide position opened to narrate the boat tours in Flamingo. I applied for the position and started in late January 1998.

Brian Ettling narrating a boat tour in Everglades National Park. Photo taken around 1998-2002.

My admiration for Marjory Stoneman Douglas while working as a naturalist guide

It was great to talk about how and why the Everglades became a national park in 1947. Unlike western national parks which were protected for their dramatic scenery, the Everglades National Park was the first national park in the world protected for its biodiversity. Florida conservationists wanted it protected because of its wide diversity of plants and animals.

I greatly admired “The mother of the Everglades” Marjory Stoneman Douglas who fought many years to protect the Everglades. She wrote the most renowned 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. She opened the book by writing,

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known…The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.”

I shared that quote and others from Marjory Stoneman Douglas during my boat tour narrations. Sadly, She passed away in May 1998 at the age of 108 years old. This happened just months after I became an Everglades naturalist guide. It felt like her torch moved on to me and others in my generation to cherish and protect the Everglades. When possible, I made sure park visitors knew about her during my interactions.

Most of all, this job gave me a great opportunity to talk about the importance of saving the Everglades, our precious environment, and our planet from the harm caused by humans. In most of my programs, I talked about how the Everglades was one of the most threatened national parks in the United States due to over development and over drainage. In December 2000, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a multi-billion-dollar plan to try to save the Everglades.

I ended most of these narrations with a famous quote incorrectly attributed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas to this day. In fact, a lesser-known Everglades activist named Joe Podgor gave Marjory the iconic quote: “The Everglades is Test. — If We Pass, We May Get to Keep the Planet.”

During those four years that I was a naturalist guide in Flamingo, I did my best to live up to that quote. I gave around 20% of the tips I received from passengers to environmental advocacy groups, such as the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Florida Sierra Club, the Save Manatees Club, and the Friends of the Everglades, the organization Marjory Stoneman Douglas founded in 1969 to “Preserve, Protect & Restore the Everglades.”

Photo by Brian Ettling of the Everglades “River of Grass” taken in 1993.

Becoming active environmentalist whiling working in Everglades National Park

During my time off from work, I attended monthly meetings of the Miami Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Tropical Audubon Society, located in Miami. After I became a Flamingo naturalist guide in 1998, I read all the articles I could find about what was happening in the Everglades.

I soon discovered that developers, the City of Miami, and even the state of Florida wanted to turn the former Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport to deliver products from Latin America, Europe and around the U.S. to the south Florida area. The Hurricane Andrew destroyed Homestead Air Force Base in 1992, leaving a large hole in the local Homestead and south Miami economy.

The outgoing George H.W. Bush Administration, incoming Bill Clinton Administration, and the U.S. Defense Department did not think it was vital to rebuild the Homestead Air Force Base for American security or military training. Instead, local Miami business leaders and many local, state, and federal officials supported building a commercial airport where the Homestead Air Force Base was located. They believed a new commercial airport would grow the economy and provide jobs for Homestead and the surrounding south Miami area.

The problem was that this airport would be located just a few miles between Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. The Everglades was already one of the most threatened national parks in the U.S, if not the world. This was due to over drainage, pollution from Miami, introduction of exotic plants and animals, etc. The last thing that Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park needed was a constant sound and emissions pollution from jet airplanes constantly flying overhead with up to 600 flights a day. I was not a scientist, just a naturalist guide who loved the Everglades. The idea of constant low flying jets over the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks sounded like a terrible idea to me.

In 1999 and 2000, I attended public hearings and meetings about the proposed Homestead Jetport plans. The meetings became very contentious with yelling on both sides. Local environmentalists strongly opposed the jetport. However, business leaders, local businesses, and members of the minority communities who wanted the jobs pushed hard for this airport.

I will never forget one public meeting where arguments broke out. One individual even said, ‘This airport would be under construction right now except for you rich people on Key Biscayne that don’t want it.’

I remember a gasp from the audience that hung in the air after that very blunt statement. A friend and I turned to each other thinking, ‘This airport will eventually lose. Don’t ever piss off rich people. They have lawyers and they know exactly how fight the system for their advantage.’

A final decision to approve the construction for the jetport resided in a federal environmental review by the Clinton Administration. This environmental review final statement would have definite winners and losers. The quandary that this decision was bumping up against the 2000 Presidential election and the end of the Clinton Administration on January 20, 2001. One group of Florida voters would be very happy, and the other side would be very angry with the final decision of the environmental review. In the fall 2000, it seemed very likely that the Presidential race could result in Florida determining the outcome for the Electoral College.

My heartbreak seeing up close Al Gore lose the 2000 Presidential election in Florida

For Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush, both of them needed those votes to possibly win Florida and then win the White House. Some south Florida voters wondered, ‘Why won’t Al Gore, ‘Mr. Tree Hugger, pro-environment, anti-global warming candidate’ stop or at least come out publicly to oppose the Homestead airport?’

Great question! The problem for Al Gore was that Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a key Gore ally in Florida, was a strong supporter of the airport.

Sadly, the Homestead airport ended up costing Al Gore the 2000 Presidential election.

To this day, this is an open wound for me that never healed. In 2000, Florida environmentalists were upset with Al Gore for not publicly making statements against the Homestead airport. From my perspective, he was staying silent until the environmental assessment was complete, so it did not appear he was interfering in the process. Even more, it looked like the Clinton Administration was slow walking the environmental decision until after the election so they would not upset the Gore supporters who strongly advocated for the proposed commercial airport.

On January 16, 2001, four days before the Clinton Administration left office, the Air Force rejected the airport plan as “inappropriate.” By then, the election was over, and Al Gore lost.

In the fall of 2000, I pleaded to no avail with environmentalists in south Florida who were upset with Al Gore to not vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. In late October, Nader flew to south Florida and publicly spoke out against the Homestead Airport, criticizing Gore in the process. This was music to the ears of many environmental activists trying to stop the airport.

For the November 3, 2000 Presidential election, Ralph Nader ended up 96,000 votes in Florida. Al Gore lost the state to George W. Bush by 537 votes. In his 2002 book Crashing the Party, Ralph Nader admits on page 276 that the Homestead Airport issue was a ‘”another ‘what-if’ that might have brought Gore the state of Florida and the White House.”

In his June 23, 2002 article, Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald quoted Nathaniel Reed, a prominent South Florida conservationist who served in the Nixon administration, who said the airport issue cost Gore “conservatively, at least 10,000 votes.”

To this day, I still feel raw that the strongest candidate on the environment at that time was abandoned by many Florida environmental voters. Al Gore was the man who wrote the landmark book Earth in the Balance that impacted me to be become an environmental activist. He was a strong advocate for protecting the Everglades. If one read between the lines, you could see that Al Gore was not favor of a Homestead commercial airport.

Al Gore was a visionary for climate action who would be featured in the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. That film won the Academy Award for the best documentary at the 2007 Oscars ceremony. This is the same man who would go on to co-win the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for his climate advocacy. It’s the same person who would take his proceeds from An Inconvenient Truth to create the Climate Reality Project. That organization led by Al Gore would train thousands of volunteers to become effective climate advocates, including me.

From 2012 to 2019, I attended eight Climate Reality Trainings, seven as a mentor to guide new Climate Reality Leaders. Al Gore led all those trainings, giving up to a 3-hour slide show explaining the problem and solutions to the climate crisis. Plus, he led many of the panel discussions during these trainings. Even more, I met and chatted with him during the 2015 Climate Reality Training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At each training, I marveled how much he knew about climate change and his passion to make a difference on that issue. These trainings were bittersweet for me to see him in person. Yet, I was angry because he should have elected President in 2000.

Al Gore and Brian Ettling at the Climate Reality Training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 7, 2015.

End of Part I of For Climate Action, let’s protect our democracy

In part 2, of this blog series, I will cover my experience living in the years 2001 to 2007 with my disgust with President George W. Bush and my thrill with the return of Al Gore. Stay tuned!