The late 1940’s were also significant in the life of another of our Past Environmental Heroes—this time a feisty little woman with the heart of a lion and the tenacity of a wolverine. She always looked more like a wealthy socialite—in her characteristic Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses—than an outdoor lover. But—as the old saying goes—“looks can be deceiving” and such was certainly the case for Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Always looking more like a wealthy socialite—in her characteristic Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses—than an outdoor lover, Marjory Stoneman Douglas had the heart of a lion and the tenacity of a wolverine.
Douglas worked diligently to gradually turn a lifelong passion for doing the right thing into her own personal environmental justice movement that culminated in preserving one of the most unique ecological areas on the face of the earth. In 1947, ending more than 30 years of pugnacious battling with politicians, land developers, and—perhaps most notably—the US Army Corps of Engineers (US ACOE)—she published her book, Everglades – The River of Grass.
In her landmark work—which has been favorably compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac—Douglas lovingly described the unfathomable beauty and untold treasures encompassed by Florida’s Everglades. And she did so at a time when most Americans—especially those who had recently moved to South Florida—considered wetlands to be just worthless square miles of mosquito and snake-infested wastelands. Not only did The River of Grass spark a movement to protect the Everglades from uncontrolled filling, land development, and wanton destruction but it also opened the eyes of the rest of the country to see and appreciate the many critical functions—including flood control, water quality protection, aquifer recharge, and wildlife habitat—provided by wetlands.
Ironically, Douglas was born in 1890 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, two places and environments that were about as far removed as possible from the South Florida landscape she grew to love and cherish. During her undergraduate years at Massachusetts’ Wellesley College, Douglas earned Straight A’s and was voted “Class Orator”—a prophetic title—as wealthy landowners and their corrupt politicians throughout South Florida were about to learn.
In 1915, Douglas moved to South Florida and began working as a columnist for her father’s newspaper—the precursor to the Miami Herald. Combining skillful writing with a firebrand personality, she quickly gained local notoriety by getting hotly embroiled in the battles over racial inequality, feminism, and resource conservation—long before these issues became the focus of the national spotlight.
The State of Florida’s wacky land development provided the perfect grist for Douglas during her early years as a columnist/poet for the Miami Herald. As an Assistant Editor, she regularly wrote editorials urging protection of Florida’s unique regional character in the face of rapid commercial development. After leaving the Herald, Douglas continued to write short stories, 40 of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post, with many winning O. Henry and other awards.
As an aside here, if you’re interested in learning about the worst possible way to conduct land development, research the settlement history of south Florida, starting around 1900. The monumental comedy of errors—including “improving” (i.e., straightening) hundreds of miles of cool meandering streams and diking the sheet flow out of massive Lake Okeechobee costing thousands of lives—is simply beyond belief.
The litany of egregious environmental impacts continued through Walt Disney’s filling of hundreds of acres of pristine wetlands in the 1960’s. Many people will tell you that Disneyworld is the worst thing that ever happened to Central Florida. Even today, environmental atrocities are still rampant in South Florida. As Carl Hiaasen, best-selling novelist and columnist for the Miami Herald says, “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.”
Now back to the head-turning exploits of Ms. Douglas. Her diminutive size belied her zeal for standing up to the power interests in South Florida. In his introduction to her autobiography Voice of the River (1987), freelance writer John Rothchild describes Douglas’ appearance in 1973 at a public meeting in Everglades City: “Mrs. Douglas was half the size of her fellow speakers and she wore huge dark glasses, which along with the huge floppy hat made her look like Scarlet O’Hara as played by Igor Stravinsky. When she spoke, everybody stopped slapping [mosquitoes] and more or less came to order. … Her voice had the sobering effect of a one-room schoolmarm’s. The tone itself seemed to tame the rowdiest of the local stone crabbers, plus the developers, and the lawyers on both sides. I wonder if it didn’t also intimidate the mosquitoes. . . . The request for a Corps of Engineers permit was eventually turned down. This was no surprise to those of us who’d heard her speak.”
When it came to the Everglades, Douglas took on all comers, including greedy land developers who wanted to drain and fill the “worthless swamp” to political hacks and power brokers who would bend over backwards to “make things work out” for a little extra money under the table. For her tireless efforts to block land development in the Everglades and maintain its vital sheet flow water source emanating from Lake Okeechobee, Douglas endured pervasive hostility from both the powerful agricultural and business communities in South Florida. But, in the process, she also earned a great deal of respect as verified by her well-deserved nickname of “The Grande Dame of the Everglades”.
Douglas’ relentless campaigning for South Florida finally paid off big time both in 1947 with the establishment of Everglades National Park and again 22 years later, in 1969, with the founding of the conservation organization Friends of the Everglades. Her tireless efforts as a conservationist earned her numerous awards. In 1986, the National Parks and Conservation Association established the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award “to honor individuals who often must go to great lengths to advocate and fight for the protection of the National Park System.” Then, in 1993, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—America’s highest civilian honor.
Living to the remarkable age of 108, Douglas passed away in 1998 in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Even near the end of her life, she was still advocating for the ongoing federal and state efforts to restore the cookie panhydrologic sheet flow out of Lake Okeechobee that was historically the lifeblood of the Everglades. Upon her death, an obituary in The Independent—a British national morning newspaper stated, “In the history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas.” Per her request, Douglas was cremated and her ashes were scattered across Everglades National Park—her beloved “river of grass”.
“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth—remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”
– Marjory Stoneman Douglas
No one in the history of the US Environmental Movement has ever been more dedicated to a singular conservation issue than Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She took on all the major power brokers that South Florida could throw at her during a time when support for natural resource conservation was minimal. Remarkably she won her war when the Everglades National Park was established just one month after her landmark book, The River of Grass, was published. Douglas’ emboldened fight to stand up for what she believed—even in the face of withering resistance and intimidating opposition—is the exactly the type of feistiness and resilience that is required to successfully take on Big Oil and win the Climate Change battle.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Photo credit: Copyright Shutterstock.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.