Who's afraid of Terri Wolfe? 

"It's essential that there be many people who are deeply committed to their places. I believe every community, every watershed, every bioregion needs a core of people who see that place as their home. They might not have been born there -- in most cases, people cannot stay where they were born; life takes them elsewhere -- but at some point they have decided that this is where they are going to invest themselves."
-- from The Sun,
by Scott Russell Sanders

by Scott Russell Sanders

by Scott Russell Sanders

"I'm getting ready to kill somebody up at Swiftmud."
-- Activist Terri Wolfe

-- Activist Terri Wolfe

This is a story about something pure and alive and unadulterated, something that wells up from deep within and comes rushing out, spilling upon an unwholesome earth.

This is a story about Terri Wolfe and her relentless drive to save a freshwater spring that feeds the Hillsborough River.

In her way stands a rich rancher with some strange ideas about environmental stewardship, Robert Thomas, president of 14,000-acre Two Rivers Ranch, which includes the spring in question. Basically, in late 1995 or early 1996, depending on who you ask, the gate at the entrance to the spring was padlocked, sealing off from the public the privately owned park at Crystal Springs, the one jewel in the paltry crown of a small, formerly socialist community, Crystal Springs Colony. Its founder, A. B. Hawk, boasted of a "Fountain of Health" to potential investors, and the colony attracted hundreds of families early last century.

By all accounts, Thomas wanted to return the spring to its natural state. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that Thomas leases access to Perrier, a division of Nestlé and owner of Zephyrhills Bottled Water Co., which began pumping in 1987. Since 1989, Thomas has been permitted to pump up to 301,000 gallons a day from the spring. In recent years, Thomas and Perrier have sought to step up pumping to as much as 1.8 million gallons a day. What's more, he's said there's no proof it would harm the river that Crystal Springs feeds.

Not so, says Wolfe, who escorted me to one homeowner's drying spring. Wolfe wasn't content when the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, turned down the bid to increase pumping to 1.8 million. "I want them gone," she says. It is not her property, no, but it's not really the Thomases', either. That spring, she and others believe, belongs to the people, who were robbed of it in the 1920s, when the first fence went up.

This is not going to be solved overnight.

Wolfe had warned me about Bubba, her American Eskimo, a snarling little white dog. She also mentioned the gators we might encounter if we trek the back way, through forest and muck, to see the Crystal Springs Recreational Preserve Inc., which as president of Save Our Springs (SOS) she is very concerned about. This past summer the water level in the pond was too low to flow through the gap near the top of the dam, the sourcewater for the Hillsborough River.

This fuels her Irish ire against the Thomas family, ranchers who own Crystal Springs, a swimming hole that has been reduced to a watering hole of sorts, at least for drinkers of Perrier products such as Zephyrhills Water. She's also rip-snorting mad that Swiftmud won't hold the Thomases to the conditions of its own Water Use Permit Conditions, which Wolfe, the mother and mouthpiece of SOS, believes gives Swiftmud just cause to halt or at least reduce pumping. Point No. 9 on that list of conditions reads, "The Permittee shall cease or reduce withdrawal as directed by the District if water levels in aquifers fall below the minimum levels established by the Governing Board."

To Wolfe, it's real simple. If no water is getting through the dam, then the water level is too low, and Perrier should not be allowed to keep pumping.

So far, Perrier is winning.

The dog, the gators, the Thomases ... Wolfe hadn't said a word on the phone about 15-foot snakes, like the one she suspects wriggled under her family's double-wide trailer after a neighbor lost a python the night before.

Bubba, the dog, out of the doghouse and barking like mad, stretches the coils of his cord as he guards the walk up to the entrance to Wolfe's trailer. Wolfe holds him back, apologizing about the yard, which she hasn't had time to mow.

"And then my neighbor had to lose a snake," she says. "My neighbor didn't just have to lose any snake, they had to lose ... a 15-foot python. Now I can't let Vicki out of the trailer."

Vicki is Wolfe's 5-year-old daughter. She was born shortly before the park closed, and has been around as long as Wolfe's been crusading to save Crystal Springs. In one video we watch -- Wolfe's video library is well stocked -- Vicki can be heard chattering off camera as her mother speaks to a reporter. When Wolfe asks Vicki who stole the springs, Vicki shouts, "The Thomases!" in a cute, little-girl voice, then flashes a juice-mustache smile. She knows that as far as her mother and her friends are concerned, she got the answer right.

Wolfe talks rapidly, one thought leading to the next. There is a hurriedness, like time is on the line, and yet she can go on ceaselessly. She will get you on the phone, jabbering, holding you captive on the wire. Above all else, when it comes to the situation with Perrier pumping at Crystal Springs, and the goliaths who would destroy it, she is indignant.

Inside, we go through a bead-enshrouded doorway to the kitchen. She offers me a seat at the glass table with a faux-concrete base. The seat cushion has cigarette burns. Stacks of papers sit nearby; videotapes are piled next to the television. Also next to the TV, pairs of cockatiels and budgies chirp and squeak like R2-D2 from cages set one atop the other; aquariums holding frogs and turtles fill the window ledges, framing Wolfe as she talks environmental issues.

On the phone one day, she tells me, "You've seen all my sides, you've seen my good side, you've seen my sweet side, but now you're fixing to see my mean side," with such venom that were we in her trailer, I might have crawled under the house and taken my chances with the python. She was plenty vituperative the times I was there.

It started in the mid-'90s, when Wolfe attended a few meetings held by the Thomas family, in which she and others present were told the Thomases were going to return Crystal Springs to its natural state. Well and good, but there were a couple of senior citizens crying outside the community center one day. These were people who grew up with the spring, who cared what happened to it. People who wanted, as laughable as it may sound to cynics, a legacy for their children and their children's children. Wolfe took note.

Soon afterward, she and some friends visited polluted, depleted Lithia Springs near Brandon. When we watch a video of that first watershed moment, in which she and some friends can be heard marveling at a muddy hole and signs near the public swimming area that read "Polluted Area, No Swimming," Wolfe apologizes over and over again for her green period of environmental activism. She may not have known what she was getting into, but the tragedy of a destroyed Florida spring pierced Wolfe's heart and upped her concern for Crystal Springs.

Today she is president of Save Our Springs, a state-certified nonprofit corporation. The 45-year-old has a coterie of assistants, but it's not what you think. These are members who donate their time and energy, but none has the reserve she has of either intangible. There is only $30 in the account, which rises and falls with the amount of change she throws from her purse into a jar. When you think of someone holding something together with some spit, a prayer and a little duct tape, think of Terri Wolfe.

She relies on her helpers to be the experts in water rights, property law and whatever other subjects come up. Wolfe works the media. Another day I am at her trailer, she is on the phone to someone in Texas, talking about the importance of using the media. She has become a national expert, and citizens conducting their own battles with Perrier in other states -- Texas, Pennsyl-vania, Wisconsin -- have come to rely on Wolfe's expertise. "I thought we were protected," is one of those statements she repeats to reporters. Somehow, she recaptures her original alarm each time. She's had plenty of practice.

If you assume it takes a native Floridian to care so deeply about a spring welling from deep underground, you assume wrong. Wolfe is from Indiana by way of Alabama, where she worked for years at a rest home her stepmother ran.

She couldn't take seeing the elderly dying off, and moved to Zephyrhills for a few years. Then it was on to Fort Myers, where she laid pool tile until she developed an allergy to the mortar, whereupon she returned to Zephyrhills and found work as a waitress. When she became pregnant at 40, she quit.

Her sympathies are still with the elderly, only this time instead of Alabamans it's Crystal Springs residents, people who swam in Crystal Springs as kids. She has taken many of them into her heart. While we're watching a video of Wolfe and some of "my old-timers," as she calls them, addressing the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners, she praises the old-timers' efforts.

She beams when Victor Eikeland approaches the mike: "There's my star." He's one of the old-timers, one of the people who, along with the kids who still sneak back to swim in the spring, brings out Wolfe's pleasant side. As she is singing praises of SOS's elderly members, one of them, Dorothy Pritcher, tells the commission she's there on behalf of "Save Our Water."

Wolfe laughs at the flub.

"You wanna know why I do this? That's why," she says, motioning toward her old-timers on TV. "They're the power of Save Our Springs."

Fifteen minutes after I arrive at her trailer, Wolfe's "right hand," Andy Smith, shows up with his dog, Izez, who waits outside with Bubba and the snake. He sits at the table across from me, an equally rapt witness to Wolfe's rants.

"You've done some travelin' for the cause too, right? Up to Wisconsin, didn't ya?" Smith asks Wolfe in a deep drawl, prompting her to discuss a trip she made to Wisconsin earlier this year.

"St. Valentine's Day Massacre is what they called it," says Wolfe. "That was a good one. Got tossed out of that `public` meeting for not doin' nothin'. They wouldn't let my `poster` board in. I wouldn't go in without it, so then under public pressure they allowed my board in. And when I read Lauren Cargill's comments -- she's a PR spokesperson for Perrier in Texas, which would be the Ozarka brand -- ‘If you own the land, you own the water; you can take what you want regardless of your neighbors' ... when I just read her comment, I got cops," Wolfe continues. "Well, not really cops, but he was sure coming my way. I couldn't afford to go to the slammer with Vicki 1,500 miles from home. My husband wouldn't have enjoyed that."

Her husband, Larry, stays completely out of his wife's Save Our Springs dealings. He pays the phone bill, and Terri says if he knew how much it was she'd wind up in divorce court.

"If people in Florida, in my opinion, were half as concerned about the water situation as they are in Wisconsin," Wolfe says, "this would've been over a long time ago. You mess with Wisconsin's water, buddy, you're asking for it."

It would seem Wolfe is tireless, but she does get tired. She very often feels like quitting. In the past year, she also underwent a radical mastectomy. About a week after, though, fueled by Darvocet, she was back at her computer, sending out her e-mails for information.

Another of Wolfe's admirers is Linda Andrews. Wolfe calls her "Doctor Linda Andrews," with a regal tone she may feel adds legitimacy to her own work. What gives it a comical tilt, though, is that Wolfe bestowed the title on Andrews even before it was official: Andrews, a University of South Florida student of organizational communication, defended her dissertation only this past summer. The meandering title: "The Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force: An ethnographic study of collaboration for the love of a river." It was a two-year study of an organization that Wolfe wants no part of. Indeed, the task force was started by one of Wolfe's least favorite people: Tom Dyer, former vice president of Two Rivers Ranch -- the Thomas' ranch.

As a student of organizational communication, Andrews studies just what the name implies: How people within an organization communicate. With the Greenways Task Force, it sounds like she had her hands full between concerned citizens, environmental interests and the captains of industry. In fact, she now wishes she had given her dissertation a different title. The original title is way too rosy, she says, "because obviously one of the greatest forces on the task force is CF Industries, and CF Industries poses one of the greatest dangers to the Hillsborough River."

She's referring to a giant, dusty, orange-hued mountain. That's CF Industries' gypsum stack, and it's located just a few miles from Crystal Springs. Environmentalists fear that radioactive waste from the mountain could contaminate the aquifer and thus the water supply. "It's nuke water," Wolfe says bluntly.

Andrews fairly heaps praise on Wolfe, whose rawness draws out of the student of behavioral science a dreamier, more philosophic side.

"I think Terri's hysterical voice is necessary," Andrews says. "And I use hysteria very specifically, because it is a form of rhetoric. It is a way of wailing out the deep emotions of the earth. In my opinion, Terri wails that hysteria. The way I like to think of Terri is as the springs' guardian angel. And she is an avenging angel. ...

"I tell you, I try real hard to be a reasonable, rational kind of human, but there are some things that reason does not explain, and there is some level of greed that must be exposed," adds Andrews. "And we all like to think that collaboration, if everybody sits down and talks about things reasonably, that that will be it.

"Well, no."

"Well, no."

Critics of Wolfe say she is using the media. And she is. She is open about it. She tells people working in other states to use the media to their advantage. That's the thing: She is not using the media to seek glory for herself. In fact, the normally chatty Terri Wolfe can be reticent when the topic is Terri Wolfe.

Says Andrews, "In every way she is a humble person. There is no pride in her. If she had pride, she would not subjugate herself to this kind of ridicule. She would try to fit in more. But Terri has no pride. She loves that spring. She will forgo any kind of legitimate, rational praise or whatever. She doesn't care about being accepted by people. That's not the point. And until someone can prove that everything she says is a lie, I think we ought to pay attention to what she says."

With Vicki off with the sitter, we pile into Andy Jones' pickup, Stewart Loeblich and I in the back with Izez, Wolfe with Jones in the cab. We stop at a Circle K. There's a faded photo of the missing snake on the door, along with a handwritten request that whoever might find it contact the owner instead of shooting it.

"Don't mind us," Wolfe tells the cashier. "We're a bunch of lunatics."

It's a funny choice of words considering that Robert Thomas, who didn't return my call, has been quoted as calling the Crystal Springs activists "water crazies."

Wolfe is a maverick. She is unorthodox. She has sunken cheeks and lines around her lips from smoking, a habit she is trying to kick. But crazy? Those are strong words for a small group trying to preserve a spout of water.

Wolfe is one step ahead of me as the four of us -- five if you count the dog -- trudge through the dank woods. We travel a well-worn path that local kids use to access the spring, over branches laid pell-mell across tributaries along the Hillsborough River, which is so low that, to hear Wolfe tell it, we can walk in the muddy public right-of-way and not on Thomas' private property. But when we get to the fence that separates the woods from the old park, we have two choices. Swim or trespass.

Loeblich and Wolfe go directly around the fence and onto the lawn: trespassing. Andy and I go around it, too, but hug the shore at first, staying closer to the water, and end up standing for a few beats in a bunch of tall reeds that block our path to the dam. When Wolfe and Loeblich look over, it's like they can't believe their eyes. Jones and I are blowing the reconnaissance mission. In hoarse whispers, the two yell for us to hurry up, get over here.

What can we do? We get over there.

As if cued by the giant director in the sky, heavy rain starts coming down. If the law doesn't get us, lightning might.

When we reach the pool-like pond, the thing both at the heart of a battle and yet obfuscated by greed and warring tribes, it really hits home that this is about a hole in the ground that spurts out water. All this ugliness and trouble over this? It's a pond. Primordial, surrounded by oaks and palms and moss under a wet, rainy sky, but still just a pond.

Then the empathy sets in. You don't have to be a major bleeding heart to get heartsick thinking about the aging locals who grew up swimming here as kids and who no longer have any access.

According to the Save Our Springs website (www.saveourspringsinc.org), Bob Thomas, Robert Thomas' father, suggested the installation of a PVC pipe in the center of the spring to transfer water to the bottling plant in Zephyrhills. A large steel pipe now carries it, which doesn't seem the best way to return the preserve to its natural state.

The rich green grass is well maintained. The water is clear -- yes, crystal clear. There's a smattering of algae and duckweed on top, but you can see the sandy bottom through patches. Indeed, this swampy place near the headwaters of the Hillsborough River is beautiful, and deceptively pristine. And there's the old swimming hole, which, according to reports, Thomas closed so that it could be returned to its natural state. It's a little tough, however, to undo the work of explosives; in fact, the swimming hole was blasted into being in the 1940s, the dam erected several years later.

In its current state, the pool is several feet deep, big and wide around, with just one problem, as Wolfe has tirelessly pointed out: There's no water coming through the dam. The current water level is too low to reach the slot near the top.

Wolfe has in her possession hundreds of documents and articles detailing the history of Crystal Springs and the current battle against Perrier and the Thomases. The surrounding community was originally socialist, and old deeds call into question whether any one person can rightfully claim ownership. There was a battle back in the '20s when a fence was erected, but Wolfe says the fight ceased when the fence came down.

The most valuable of those articles, maps and deeds are kept under lock and key for Wolfe by a friend. She asks that I not print who. Can't be too careful.

Undiscovered, a little afraid, we all retreat to the cover of the woods.

"If you were on the trail, you were trespassing," says Susan Stephens, the former president of the University of South Florida's Student Environmental Association, who has known Wolfe for about a year. The two worked side by side last fall when Save Our Springs held a protest attempting to prove the navigability of the spring in the hope that the federal government might step in and stop the pumping.

It's doubtful the two will work together again.

"I have mixed impressions," Stephens says of Wolfe. "Up until a couple of weeks ago, I thought she was a really good example of grass-roots at its best. Someone whose energy was just really focused into this spring issue."

The mixed part of it comes in, she says, because "Terri's a little bit of a loose cannon. I kind of knew that, but I hadn't really seen it up close and personal."

She saw it when she attended a Hillsborough County Commission meeting with Loeblich and Wolfe. At Wolfe's request, Stephens went along with them prior to the meeting and documented, on video and film, "the no-flow situation" at Crystal Springs.

"Stew had specifically told her prior to the meeting `to` be careful what she said, and don't bring any attention to the fact that we had trespassed," says Stephens. "They knew we were trespassing, but it's better left unsaid.

"First thing out of `Wolfe's` mouth was, ‘I did not trespass.'"

Stephens continues: "I'm sorry, but not only was she blatantly lying, but I think she red-flagged the situation, and she also kind of pointed a finger, like ‘I didn't, but maybe somebody else did.'

"An environmentalist, a conservationist, wouldn't go out of his way to do something like that. They have more sense than that. And they protect their sources, and there's a certain kind of ethics involved. I think Terri violated that ... I totally lost respect for her at that point.

"She has a good cause," Stephens adds. "I support the cause, but I personally have issues with Terri."

Indeed she does. Stephens had nominated Wolfe for a conservation award presented by Chevron. (Yes, that Chevron.) But Stephens' loss of faith in Wolfe was so complete and final that when Chevron called her, Stephens retreated. "It was a cash award, a big promotional deal, fancy dinner in New Orleans, a big deal and, you know, she blew it. She blew it."

In nominating Wolfe, Stephens needed recommendations and some biographical information. Linda Andrews helped out by writing a short biography. In it, she called Wolfe "a voice for the elderly and the generations of children to come."

Andrews herself concedes that Wolfe can be her own worst enemy, which by turn may be detrimental to Save Our Springs.

But, Andrews says, "The thing about Terri is, she cannot be corrupted. She is pure. And there aren't many of us you can say that about."


More by David Jasper


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