She Helped Americans Fall in Love with Florida's Everglades

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Marjory Stoneman Douglas

04-01-2000 // Michael Lipske

The National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame was established in 1963 to honor Americans who have made major contributions to the nation´s environmental and natural-resource protection efforts. In March, NWF added two new inductees to the list of 23 other people whose legacies were previously honored: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Morris King Udall.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was never anybody´s saccharine little old lady in tennis shoes. Five feet of feistiness topped off by a floppy hat, the influential writer and activist once acknowledged: "They call me a nice old woman, but I´m not."

For Douglas, all was fair in her fight to save every ounce and inch of the Everglades--a subtropical wilderness of water, wildlife and sawgrass covering millions of acres of South Florida. At contentious public meetings on the fate of the Glades, she was not above playing up her deafness when urged to yield the floor. She also knew how to scold the opposition into silence: "I knew your father and he would be so ashamed of you," she once told a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers.

In the second act of a life that ran 108 years (born in 1890, Douglas died May 14, 1998), the Floridian helped Americans fall in love with a place that many people had long dismissed as worthless swampland. She struck her first blow for preservation in 1947, with publication of her lyrical, best-selling book The Everglades: River of Grass, which fanned public opinion in favor of Everglades conservation. Decades later, when Douglas was pushing 80, she struck again, founding the conservation group Friends of the Everglades in order to fight the building of a jetport in the wetlands.

Douglas usually preferred to defend the swamp and its creatures from the comfort of the Coconut Grove cottage she lived in since 1926. Born in Minneapolis, she moved in 1915 to Florida, where she went to work for a newspaper (now The Miami Herald) founded by her father. A suffragist and later a relief worker with the American Red Cross in Europe during World War I, Douglas also became a prize-winning short-story writer for magazines.

In the early 1940s, she began research for The Everglades: River of Grass. The nonfiction book celebrated the region´s "vast glittering expanses, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon," where sunlight poured down on prairies of sawgrass and on the shallow water that inched southward from Lake Okeechobee toward the Gulf of Mexico. Douglas wrote about roseate spoonbills, panthers and other Everglades wildlife. However, she also reminded readers that continuing the relentless development around the vast wetland imperiled the ecosystem.

Although the Everglades was declared a national park in 1947 (it was the first park created to protect a threatened ecological system), assaults against it have continued. The Army Corps of Engineers long ago embarked on a campaign that diverted Lake Okeechobee´s life-sustaining waters from the park. Chemical-laden runoff from agriculture and other sources pollutes the wetlands and poisons its plants and animals. South Florida´s rapidly growing human population craves the same water that is needed by park wildlife. Despite the many millions of dollars that Florida and the federal government have committed to restoring the Everglades, the fate of the wilderness is anything but certain.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," Douglas wrote at the beginning of her book. Keen awareness of the value of this "magnificent, subtle and unique region" kept her fighting for its protection against all comers. "I know I´ve got my enemies," she once said, "and I feel fine about it, thank you." She knew that the fight to save the Glades would never really end, and yet relished the combat.

"Boo louder," she told an audience of farmers and developers who were jeering the octogenarian as she walked to the dais at yet another meeting several years ago. She laughed. They booed. Then Marjory Stoneman Douglas spoke her mind.

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