Finding his ‘white whale’: How Tasman Rosenfeld ’23 is fighting to conserve Florida’s natural habitats
Environmental conservation is second nature to Tasman Rosenfeld ’23, who grew up surrounded by wildlife in the Everglades of Southern Florida. But this fall, he found himself in conversation with developers of opposing interests, trying to convince them of the importance of environmental consciousness at both the state and personal level.
Rosenfeld is the youth conservation director on the board of the Florida Wildlife Federation — a nonprofit that aims to preserve the Sunshine State’s natural habitats and wildlife. It is a position he has held for two years, after being recognized by the federation for a youth educator award while still in high school. During his fall gap semester, Rosenfeld took his involvement with the FWF a step further by taking on an internship at the organization, which ended last Friday. Lobbying for wildlife and environmental conservation has made Rosenfeld rethink his career path, alerting him to the far-reaching implications of conservation policy.
Much of Rosenfeld’s work with the nonprofit revolved around two of the FWF’s digital campaigns: one to stop a proposed state-wide system of toll roads and the other to push for emissions regulatory policy at the state level. Rosenfeld created campaign content including videos, photographs and a letter template to lobby support for emissions regulations.
“I’ve learned a lot about how state government works, specifically here in Florida [and] broadly I’ve learned about lobbying [and] grassroots campaigning,” said Rosenfeld. “I’m very excited to take those skills forward with me into the space of conservation and policy.”
The system of toll roads — formally known as the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) project — would span from the Georgia border to the southwestern tip of the peninsula. The project was signed into law last year and claims to address issues including hurricane evacuation, traffic congestion and water connectivity.
But Rosenfeld said the impact of the toll roads on land conservation work would be devastating. Many of the roads would run directly through existing conservation lands or between adjacent lands where wildlife corridors exist. These corridors connect habitats to allow for migration and species movement. Rosenfeld said this is crucial for large mammals like bears and the endangered Florida panther.
“[The toll roads] essentially would fragment 30 years of land conservation work here in the state of Florida,” Rosenfeld said. “We’ve recently [convinced] the department of transportation to at least postpone the beginning of their construction [and] that gives us more time to stop this.”
Rosenfeld said that many Floridians already support the campaigns, given their concerns about the impact of state legislation on both the environment and on their wallets. He added that the real challenge is convincing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state legislature and the state department of transportation, because developers have far greater lobbying budgets than environmental groups.
Preston Robertson, the president and CEO of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the toll road project is reflective of a larger problem across the state and the nation of taxpayer dollars going toward helping private businesses pursue development.
“[Florida] is ground zero for environmental protection in the country,” said Robertson, in reference to Florida’s geographic vulnerabilities to climate change. “[Rosenfeld] got to know how the legislature works and how it doesn’t work and about who really holds power in this state.”
Robertson first met Rosenfeld three years ago when the 20-year-old was given a position on the nonprofit’s board as the youth conservation director — a role he described as important, given that a majority of the FWF’s clients and staff are older people.
“A lot of nonprofits have an older set of board members so we were trying to get people that were much younger to give their perspective on the world and especially the environment in Florida,” said Robertson. “Tasman was the perfect fit. He knows technology and media which us old-timers aren’t really versed in, and he was just helpful in every way here.”
Robertson said both the communications and visual aspects of lobbying and environmental education are central to the FWF’s mission, particularly because they are a small nonprofit with only six full-time employees.
Rosenfeld also used his media skills to produce videos for the FWF’s social media about his favorite reptiles and amphibians. He said he got out of the office once or twice a week to film videos in different forests, grasslands and conservation sites.
While Rosenfeld was filming content, he said he found his “white whale,” a term drawn from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” describing an obsession with something that is seemingly unattainable. Rosenfeld had tried to find a short-tailed snake ever since he was a teenager. During the internship, he finally found one — right on the edge of a thunderstorm.
“It’s the most excited that I’ve been in a really long time, seeing that snake in the wild,” said Rosenfeld. “[These snakes] look weird: they’ve got a beautiful pattern and most importantly they’re just incredibly secretive; they only emerge [from underground] during certain times of the year under certain conditions.”
Although Rosenfeld is not currently in the organization’s physical office, he told the News his work with the FWF is not over. He continues to co-chair the nonprofit’s climate change committee and hopes to keep producing campaign content for the Federation. Additionally, he will continue to perform an advisory role as a FWF board member, staying involved in discussions on litigation and state policy.
“I’ve learned about how tight-knit the conservation community is here in Florida; pretty much everyone knows each other,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s inspiring to see so many people, young and old, getting engaged in saving Florida’s wildlife.”
Rosenfeld said his time with the Florida Wildlife Federation has made him rethink his career path at Yale. While he originally thought he would become an evolutionary biologist, now he is considering a career in policy or government.
Rosenfeld plans to return to campus in the spring and is looking forward to reconnecting with fellow researchers and graduate students in labs he works at, both at Yale and at the University of Arizona.
Robertson said the team already “miss[es] him tremendously”.
“Having someone that is so young, so well-versed and so intelligent was delightful,” said Robertson. “[Rosenfeld is] probably the smartest twenty-year-old I’ve ever met.”
Rosenfeld’s favorite family of salamander — Sirenidae or the Sirens — have external gills protruding from their necks.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org