Jim Thomas has done more for the environment and conservation in West Orange County than probably any other individual in this area. He created Biosphere Consulting Inc. — a native plant nursery and environmental consulting firm — and founded both the Friends of Lake Apopka and the Oakland Nature Preserve, two organizations dedicated to local environmental restoration and conservation.
Thomas, 86, of Winter Garden, died Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021.
James Milton Thomas, a fifth-generation Florida native, was born Nov. 10, 1934, and was drawn to nature at an early age. When he was a child, his father took him and his brothers to fish in Lake Apopka.
His love of nature continued into adulthood, and he studied biology and environmental studies at Florida State University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and continued his graduate studies at Yale University, University of Florida, North Carolina State University, University of Puerto Rico and Rutgers University.
He served briefly in the U.S. Army in the 1950s.
Thomas met his future wife, Peg, while both were students at FSU. They were married June 2, 1963, at Clearwater Methodist Church in Largo. They raised their children in Winter Garden, where they have lived for nearly 50 years.
NO BATTLE WAS TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL
Throughout his life he immersed himself into many battles on behalf of the environment, always promoting science to lead the way for sound growth and ecological restoration.
When Lake Apopka was named one of Florida’s most polluted lakes, Thomas’ fond memories of fishing and swimming there inspired him to work on improving the health of the lake.
He created the citizen advocacy group FOLA in 1991, and it was dedicated to the restoration and long-term management of the lake. He spearheaded policy actions and funding efforts to bring the lake back to its past glory.
Perhaps Thomas’ biggest accomplishment was when he and then-Florida Sen. Buddy Dyer approached the state legislature with a plea to help restore Lake Apopka. This resulted in the
Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996, which provided millions of dollars to acquire northern shore farmland and turn it into natural wetlands.
That was the pivotal point in the recovery of Lake Apopka, and it began to heal.
In 1999, Thomas obtained grant money and, with the help of FOLA and Oakland residents, worked to get 128 acres set aside to create the educational nature preserve in Oakland.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Let’s restore it to its natural habitat down to the lake, but in the meantime, let’s educate the public,’” FOLA President Joe Dunn said.
The two missions would complement each other: FOLA would be the advocate for the lake, and ONP would provide the education.
“It seemed no battle or cause was too big or small,” said Mona Phipps, a longtime friend who worked alongside him at Biosphere and in several environmental advocacy groups. “Whether it was standing up for a homeowner who wanted a native plant landscape and their HOA was against it or founding Friends of Lake Apopka to lead the battle for the restoration of the lake. And, although he received several awards, he never did it for the glory; he didn't care about who got the credit. He only cared about getting it done. He was gifted at establishing advocacy groups. Always follow the science, create long- and short-term goals, and educate your ‘soldiers’ (members of the group) so everyone knows what they are talking about.
“At the very heart of who Jim Thomas was, (he) was a teacher,” Phipps said. “First, last and always. I used to follow him around with a note pad, and I wasn't the only one. So much to learn and knowledge you could trust, and he always voiced things so they could be understood.”
Dunn met Thomas when Dunn and his wife bought property on the lake in 2014. Thomas taught the Dunns about the conservation area and about protecting the lake, and then he talked Dunn into joining FOLA.
“He was always about the mission, about the cause; it was never about him,” Dunn said. “He was so selfless. He deflected praise and glory, and he was always about what can we do to make sure this lake is restored to its former glory. And that’s what I really admired about him.”
Thomas received numerous awards and recognition for his work on behalf of the environment, but it was not important to him to receive credit for taking a stand — it was more important to take the stand and make a difference.
In 2017, Thomas was named to the Florida Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame for his tireless work with Lake Apopka and lifelong dedication to environmental protection.
FOLA created in 2019 an annual award called the Jim Thomas Environmental Hero Award to honor Thomas and those he inspired to follow in his footsteps. The first recipient was Jim Peterson, an environmental scientist, FOLA science adviser and current ONP president who had worked with Thomas for more than 20 years to restore Lake Apopka.
That same year, ONP officially named its headquarters the Jim Thomas Environmental Education Center, and Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark proclaimed Feb. 16, 2019, Jim Thomas Day in the town.
Thomas was known for keeping notes, articles, letters and other papers, and this would result in 22 binders full of important information on the history of Lake Apopka. They have been donated to the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation.
“I reached out to UCF, and the history department and English department are going to collaborate in writing the history of lake Apopka restoration,” Phipps said. “That’s something Jim always wanted, so we’re going to make that happen. It will concentrate on 1940, when they built the levy, and moving forward when it got polluted.”
“He was certainly one of a kind and a crusader for the environment in Central Florida,” Peterson said. “He was my hero, mentor and teacher for many years. His visions of Lake Apopka, the Lake Apopka North Shore and the Oakland Nature Preserve are all being realized today. I hope that we continue to remember Jim's environmental advocacy as an example of how to bring about change and raise people's awareness using science and teaching.”
“Jim’s contributions to West Orange County and to environmental concerns overall were immense,” Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark said. “The town of Oakland will always be grateful for his influence and accomplishments. We will miss him greatly.”
“I’ll remember Jim as a quiet, substantive, effective leader for the environment at the place and time where attention and effort needed to be focused,” Jay Exum said about his longtime friend and mentor in environmental activism. “He was the singular reason so much effort has been placed on restoring Lake Apopka, including inviting ecotourism, collaboration with landowners and allocation of major sources of funding. You couldn’t get a Lake Apopka project approved without first going to meet with Jim Thomas to get his perspective.
“I can only imagine how many other people’s paths were influenced or directed by Jim, and that is surely a part of his legacy,” Exum said, adding that he has served on many environmental boards because of Thomas. “He, by example, showed the rest of us what we should be doing to make a difference, even if we might not do it as well as Jim would have.”
Earlier this year, FOLA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission launched a fish tag challenge, and a $5,000 prize was offered for the angler who caught the fish named for Thomas.
“Because of Jim’s courage and determination, Lake Apopka’s water quality has dramatically improved,” FOLA officials wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “Birders flock to the restored wetlands of the north shore, hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, cyclists travel to ride our lakeside trails, and anglers are discovering rejuvenated bass fishing. Jim Thomas’ efforts and legacy will live for many generations to come.”
Besides FOLA and ONP, Thomas founded the Friends of the Wekiva River and spent years on the board of directors for the Florida Wildlife Federation and the pollution control advisory board for the Reedy Creek Improvement District. In addition, he shared his environmental and ecological knowledge with Orange Audubon Society, the Henry Nehrling Society Inc. and multiple Orange County task forces.
In addition to his wife, Thomas is survived by a daughter, Ellen McNeil (and husband James Armstrong), of St. Marys, Georgia; son, Jay (and wife Angie), of Clermont; brother, Don, Castle Rock, Colorado; grandchildren, Amadeus Cochran and Jimmy Caldwell.
The family is planning a celebration of life at a later date. Collison Carey Hand Funeral Home is handling arrangements.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.