Marjory Stoneman Douglas Was the Voice of the Everglades


Environmentalist and author Marjory Stoneman Douglas poses in front of the house she lived in for over 70 years in Miami (without air conditioning!) It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

In the weeks after the horrific Parkland, Florida school shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas became a household name for all the wrong reasons. But her name was given to the high school because of her legendary 50-year crusade to save the Florida Everglades.

Born in Minneapolis in 1890 and educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Douglas moved to South Florida in 1915 after a brief and disastrous marriage to join her father, editor and founder of a newspaper that would become the Miami Herald. She was an accomplished journalist, short story writer and an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage, anti-poverty campaigns, and ultimately the cause that would make her famous, the Everglades.

Douglas's 1947 ode to these wetlands, "The Everglades: River of Grass" was published the same year that President Harry S. Truman dedicated Everglades National Park. Long before environmental scientists fully understood the fragility and interconnectedness of the Everglades ecosystem, Douglas railed against efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drain and divert parts of the sprawling wetlands to make room for agricultural and urban development.

"Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang the bell decades ago about the importance of the Everglades, the iconic beauty of the Everglades, and man's decision to chip away at it," says Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. "She spearheaded the efforts that we continue to fight for today."

Interestingly, Eikenberg himself graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 1994, although like most teenagers he didn't know much about his school's namesake. The school was dedicated in 1990 when Douglas was 100 and still going strong.

With "The Everglades: River of Grass," Douglas provided a new way of understanding the 1.5 million-acre wetlands preserve. Rather than seeing it as merely a sprawling swamp, Douglas rightly described the Everglades as a massive, slow-moving river of shallow water draining north to south from Lake Okeechobee down through the sawgrass prairies and emptying into the Florida Bay.

In moving prose, Douglas wrote of the hundreds of species of birds, fish and flora that thrived in the precariously balanced ecosystem of the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. She rightly recognized that this area was largely responsible for the rainfall in South Florida.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," begins "River of Grass." "They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them..."

A tireless and often intimidating advocate, she founded the organization Friends of the Everglades at age 79 (despite her failing eyesight) to fight a proposed jetport in the middle of the wetlands. The airport plan was scrapped and Douglas spent the rest of her life defending the Everglades.

John Rothchild, who edited her 1987 autobiography "Voice of the River," described her in the book's introduction as she appeared at a public meeting in Everglades City in 1973:

"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 . . . The request for a Corps of Engineers permit was eventually turned down."

Why the Everglades Are in Danger

There are two seasons in the Everglades, the dry winter and the monsoon summer, and scientists now understand that seasonal fluctuations in water levels are key to maintaining a delicate equilibrium between competing plant and animal species.

That balance has been dangerously disturbed by decades of habitat loss and shortsighted water management tactics, explains Eikenberg of the Everglades Foundation. The River of Grass is no longer a free-flowing sheet of water but sliced up and boxed in by dams and dikes.

This image shows some Everglades channels with mangrove plants in each side. The Everglades is a natural region of tropical wetlands in Florida, comprising the southern half of a large drainage basin and part of the neotropic ecozone.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Water floods some areas and you have drought in others. It's all out of whack," says Eikenberg. "That's what restoration is trying to improve."

Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan back in 2000, but the funds to implement the plan were never secured. In the meantime, Lake Okeechobee, historically the water source that fed the southward flow of the River of Grass, has become hopelessly polluted, largely by agricultural runoff. In 2016, high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake caused a toxic algae bloom that prompted the governor to issue a state of emergency.

Eikenberg says that Congress will have to re-authorize funding for the restoration (it's been 18 years, after all), but that if everything goes well, the River of Grass could be restored in eight years. He believes that Douglas, who died in 1998 at the impressive age of 108, would be energized by the effort.



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