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Law grad embraces heritage in career, children's books


By Brandon Breslow
Student writer

You might say the history and environment of Florida are woven into the very being of Harvey Oyer III (JD 98).

Oyer is a direct descendent of the Pierce family, one of the first white families to settle in Southeast Florida immediately following the Seminole Wars and the Civil War.

His diverse professions include work as a land-use lawyer, children's book author and archaeologist — always concentrating on the vitality that makes Florida unique.

"In South Florida, it is unique to have a family that goes back five generations," he said, "but I take more pride in the role my family played in the development of Florida."

Notable members of Oyer's family include United States President Franklin Pierce, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin K. Pierce, for whom the Florida town of Fort Pierce is named, legendary "barefoot mailman" Charlie Pierce, Oyer's great-granduncle, and Lillie Pierce, the first white child born between Jupiter and Miami. She was Oyer's great-grandmother.

Among many contributions to the area, one of the Pierce family's most notable was the planting of coconuts in 1878 from the shipwrecked Providencia of Spain. From these coconut trees sprouted the beginnings of the landscape and name for West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County.

Being a part of this lineage exposed Oyer to an in-depth knowledge of Florida's geography and wildlife, and he is determined to help preserve it.

"I love Florida," he said. "I love all things about our natural world, our history, our archaeology, our flora, and our fauna."

Combine Oyer's fervor with what he called "his hardwiring to be a lawyer," and it can be expected that he would be a zealous legal advocate for Florida's most pressing environmental and land-use issues.

In his four years at the West Palm Beach office of Shutts & Bowen LLP, Oyer has represented large rural land owners, governmental agencies, and real estate developers. He also chairs the office's Land Use Practice Group.

"A lot of my work has to do with responsible sustainable development and agriculture," Oyer said, "including the growing of commodities to be used for biofuels and synthetic fuels."

One of Oyer's biggest legal projects was the creation of privately owned conservation banks for the Florida panther. Of the four conservation banks that exist in Florida, Oyer served as counsel in the implementation of three. His responsibilities included conceptualizing the idea, drafting all necessary documents and creating endowment and trusts to provide for perpetual maintenance.

"I feel good about what I'm doing," Oyer said. "At the end of my career if the Florida panther still exists, I can genuinely say that I was part of saving that species."

Oyer did not make a direct transition from his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida to the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He spent almost five years traveling to Turkey, Colombia, Australia and other remote parts of the world for archaeological excavations and earning his master's degree in archaeology from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Oyer also served in the Marines and made the rank of captain before becoming a reservist to attend UF Law.

"There were a lot of things I wanted to do with my life that I knew couldn't be done while I was in law school or after," Oyer said. "Once I felt ready to come back to America, I knew Florida was the obvious choice for law school."

Oyer's strong ties to Florida and interest in environmental law made UF Law a perfect fit. UF Law's Environmental Law Program is ranked 13th nationally by U.S. News and World Report.

"If you want to practice law in Florida, then you need to go to UF Law," Oyer said. "I was able to learn about Florida law and develop a network within Florida that I maintain today."

Oyer's desire to preserve Florida isn't just expressed through his legal work. Since childhood, his grandmother told him stories about the Pierce family's relationship with Native Americans, particularly those of younger Charlie and Lillie Pierce with the Seminole children. In 2008, Oyer released a version of these stories as a children's book, The Adventures of Charlie Pierce: The American Jungle.

"We need to grow the next generation of Floridians to have a better fundamental understanding of the uniqueness of Florida," he said, "and I think there's a greater opportunity to do that with our children."

The book since became popular with children and adults, receiving gold medals from the Florida Publishers Association in both Children's Fiction and books about Florida in 2010.

The overall acclaim for the first book encouraged Oyer to write a sequel, The Adventures of Charlie Pierce: The Last Egret. The book, published in early 2010, focused on Charlie Pierce's journey across South Florida as a teenager to hunt for bird plumes. The plumes were a fashion trend in the late 19th century that Pierce, after witnessing the negative impact the hunting of these birds had on the environment, came to oppose.

The Last Egret meets more than 50 Sunshine State Teaching Standards for the fourth grade and became required reading in 2010 for fourth graders in Palm Beach County, the 11th largest school district in the country.

"The books have a really powerful message for today's youth about conservation," he said, "and children unwittingly learn the history and archaeology of Florida along the way."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently licensed the characters of The Adventures of Charlie Pierce to be used in their youth conservation programs statewide. Oyer is working on another book for his children's series to be released in 2012.

"These books are a knockout," said Tim O'Neil, coordinator of marketing for the Wildlife Foundation of Florida. "We plan to use these characters as part of an outreach program for kids."

He is also very philanthropic in his community. He is a director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches and a trustee and general counsel of the South Florida Science Museum. He served as chairman of the Historical Society of Palm Beach for seven years and director of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council for six years. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Law and the Florida Atlantic University Honors College.

"Harvey is an asset to this community," said Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe. "His love and passion for Florida history guides his many community activities and contributions."

In May, Oyer received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations. The medal is awarded to United States citizens from diverse ethnic backgrounds who excel in their professional and personal lives and continue to celebrate their heritage. Oyer was one of 100 recipients in 2011 to receive the award at a weekend ceremony on Ellis Island in New York. He was joined by entertainer Jerry Lewis, former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula and Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

"I sat among these extraordinary people and was able to enjoy their heritage, as well as mine," Oyer said.