See more of the story

ORLANDO, Fla. - When Megan Sorbo first spoke out for Florida black bears at a public meeting, she was 9 and needed a step stool to see over the podium.

In the years since, the home-schooled Orlando girl, now 13, has taken up for not only bears but also panthers, the Everglades and the Split Oak Forest.

An advocate for Florida's natural resources, she's cajoled, chastised and charmed governing bodies for the state wildlife commission, water-management districts and several county governments.

"This girl has clearly found her voice," said Mike Orlando, a wildlife biologist.

"Whether you agree with her or not, you have to respect her. She's smart and thoughtful."

She recently urged state wildlife commissioners to ax hunting as an option to manage bear populations and asked Orange County commissioners to protect Split Oak Forest from a road plan.

"Just because kids can't vote doesn't mean we don't care," she told commissioners.

"Just because kids aren't doctors or lawyers or professors yet doesn't mean our voices matter less."

She was among dozens of people who spoke up for the protected forest, which straddles east Orange and north Osceola counties. All the others were adults.

In the matter of Split Oak, commissioners opted to back the Central Florida Expressway Authority's proposal to extend the Osceola Parkway across the forest's southern tip.

But Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings took note of her comments that implored elected leaders who want to be seen as caretakers of the world to "then take care of it."

"We admire your passion," he said, thanking her for being active and involved in her community.

Megan's mother, Tina Sorbo, believes her daughter's unflinching activism was awakened at age 7 during a trip to the Everglades for a home-school lesson.

"That was her light-bulb moment," mom said. "It lit her passion."

Always an animal lover, Megan recalled learning about encroaching threats on the vast subtropical wilderness, an important habitat to manatees, the American crocodile and panthers.

"I thought, 'I can do something about this,' " she said.

And an advocate was born.

Megan's passion has inspired the whole family, said her brother, Trevor, 25.

Both he and his mother also spoke against the Expressway Authority's plan to build a route through Split Oak to serve an area targeted for future mega-developments.

Her words are her own, her brother said.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh, these kids have parents planting stuff in their brains.' But that's completely not true of my sister," Trevor said.

Their mother is concerned because she said Megan has received "nasty grams" for opposing the bear hunt.

But Megan said she no longer worries since she earned an orange belt in the Korean martial art of taekwondo.

And she's not opposed to skewering developers and government leaders.

In her Split Oak remarks, she pointed out the forest was bought with millions of taxpayer dollars to be protected in perpetuity.

"I don't know how long forever is to developers, " Megan said.

"But to me, forever means until the end of time."