Written by Jason Epperson

Listen to this post below:

At the southern tip of Florida lie the Everglades, a crucial ecosystem to America and the world. Everglades National Park has spent its entire life under siege, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas out front as its chief warrior.

“Back in 1870, when only eighty-five people lived along the coast of southeastern Florida, an estimated two million wading birds inhabited the Everglades during dry seasons. During the late nineteenth century, plume-hunting reduced these birds to only several hundred thousand. This dramatic loss spurred protective laws in Florida — and in New York, where the plumes had been shipped to millinery houses. Thus protected, the wading-bird population rebounded to near its original level. Then, in the 1940s and after, the character of the Everglades itself began to change. As South Florida grew, the Everglades shrank, its waters controlled for man’s uses. By the mid-1970s, wading-bird numbers had dropped back to a few hundred thousand, about 10 percent of what it had been a century before. Biologists actively study these birds, looking for clues that might lead to stopping or even reversing the decline. As yet the only thing that is certain is that life in the Everglades is more fragile than anyone ever thought.”

“Everglades: The Story Behind the Scenery,” Jack de Golia, 1978

Everglades National Park protects 1.5 million acres of Florida’s southern tip. It’s the first federal land protected not for beauty but, but for conservation, but the creation of the park was only the beginning. The Everglades have spent the last 100 years under siege. Our story is of the woman who protected them time and time again, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Photo Credit: The New Yorker

A Writer’s Life

“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…”

“The Everglades: River of Grass,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas

An apt description of the land, but also of Marjory herself. A true American hero, whose story is anything but average.

As a young child in Minnesota, before the turn of the 20th century, Marjory Stoneman’s father Frank read her “The Song of Hiawatha,” Longfellow’s Indigenous lore poem, set in the Pictured Rocks on the south shore of Lake Superior. The young Marjory burst into tears upon realizing a tree would give its life to provide Hiawatha the wood for a canoe.

At the age of six, Marjory’s parents separated. Her father’s failed business ventures caused her mother Lillian, a concert violinist, to take Marjory to her grandparents Massachusetts home, where she lived with her mother, aunt, and grandparents, who disparaged her father whenever they had the chance. Throughout her childhood, Marjory, who suffered from night terrors, would watch as her mother battled with mental illness, a battle she was never fully able to overcome.

Marjory escaped the turmoils at home in books, eventually beginning to write herself. By her late teens, she had multiple short stories published and had been awarded a prize by the Boston Herald for a story about a boy who watches a sunrise from a canoe. But as her mother’s health declined, Marjory took on many of the family responsibilities, eventually managing the family finances. Despite her burdens, her aunt and grandmother sent her off for Wellesley College in 1908 recognizing that she needed to begin her own life. A model student, she graduated with a BA in English in 1912 – her mother died of breast cancer shortly after.

Marjory On the Rise

Marjory Stoneman met Kenneth Douglas, a newspaper editor 30-years her senior in 1914. In a whirlwind romance, they married in three months. It’s not exactly known what his misdeeds were, but it became clear that Kenneth Douglas was a con artist. Marjory stayed with him while he spent six months in jail for writing a bad check, but when he tried to scam her estranged father, she ended the marriage.

The con turned out to be fortuitous, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas was reunited with Frank Stoneman, whom she had not seen since moving away. In the fall of 1915, she left Massachusetts for Miami to live with her father who was the editor of the paper which would eventually become the Miami Herald.

Already an accomplished writer, Marjory joined the paper as a society columnist, but since fewer than 5,000 people lived in Miami at the time, the news was slow, and she’d have to make up many of the people and stories. Residents would ask about the characters they had never met, and she’d concoct elaborate accounts of their recent arrival to Miami.

In print, Frank Stoneman intensely attacked the governor of Florida, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, for his endeavors to drain the Everglades. When Stoneman ran for a circuit judgeship and won, Broward refused to certify the election. Frank Stoneman was referred to as “Judge” for the rest of his life without ever taking the bench.

In 1917, as World War I was raging in Europe, the Navy sent a ship to enlist men and women into the reserves. Marjory was assigned to cover the story of a local woman who was to be the first Miami woman to enlist. The woman didn’t show, so Marjory decided that she would take her place. She joined the Navy, became a yeoman first class, and was stationed in Miami.

Already leading a tough life, forced into early maturity, the military didn’t suit Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was no fan of rising early, and the officers were not fans of her grammar corrections. She requested and was granted a discharge, at which time she joined the American Red Cross, who sent her off to Paris. There, she cared for refugees until the war ended and her father cabled for her to come home and take over as the assistant editor at the now Miami Herald.

Her new column, “The Galley,” made Stoneman Douglas a local celebrity. “The Galley” was about whatever she wanted it to be about that week. She spoke out for responsible urban planning when Miami’s population increased ten-fold in a decade. She supported women’s suffrage and civil rights, and opposed prohibition and tariffs. She began to talk about Florida’s landscape and geography.
By 1923, her success and the pressure of writing her column and conflicts with the paper’s publisher got to Marjory. She began to experience blackouts and was diagnosed with nerve fatigue. She left the Herald and began to recover by sleeping late and writing short stories. The Saturday Evening Post published 40 of them, along with those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Most were fiction. Her protagonists were often independent women who encountered social injustices. The people and animals of the Everglades were the background of others, and some were non-fiction. “Wings” addressed the slaughter of Everglade birds for fashionable ladies’ hats.

She was commissioned to write a pamphlet called “An argument for the establishment of a tropical botanical garden in South Florida, causing her to become a fixture at garden clubs where she delivered speeches. She became a part of the Miami theater scene, writing one-act plays, one loosely modeled on the life of Al Capone, who’s henchmen showed up to check in on it. In 1926 she designed and built the cottage in which she lived for the rest of her life. Becoming ever more the socialite, she became a forceful pioneer in the fights for feminism, racial justice, and conservation. She fought against poverty, slumlords, and poor sanitation.

And she fought for the Everglades.

A Fighter for the Land

Marjory Stoneman Douglas served on the committee that argued for the creation of Everglades National Park, along with the force behind the idea, Ernest F. Coe. In 1934 Everglades National Park was designated by Congress, but it took another 13 years to acquire land and secure funding.
In the early 40s, Douglas was approached to contribute to a book series called the “Rivers of America.” She was asked to write about the Miami River, which she said was about “an inch long,” and instead persuaded the publisher to allow her to write about the Everglades. She spent five years researching the little-known ecology of the area, spending time with a geologist who discovered that South Florida’s sole freshwater source was the Biscayne Aquifer, which was filled by the Everglades. “The Everglades: River of Grass” was published in 1947 and sold out in a month. The book’s first line, “There are no other Everglades in the world” is easily the most famous line written about South Florida. She wrote about an ecosystem inescapably connected to South Florida’s people and cultures.

Everglades National Park officially opened in 1947, the same year River of Grass was published. The book became one of the most famous environmental calls to action in history, causing citizens and politicians to take notice. It was, in fact, a blueprint for many of the Everglades restoration projects that are still on-going today.

By the 1960s, the Everglades were in imminent danger of disappearing forever. In response to floods caused by hurricanes in 1947, the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project was established to construct flood control mechanisms in the Everglades. 1,400 miles of canals and levees were built over the course of 20 years. The C-38 canal, the last built, straightened the Kissimmee River, inflicting catastrophic damage on the habitats and water quality of South Florida.

Douglas initially gave the project her approval, as it promised to deliver much-needed water to the shrinking Everglades. But, in reality, it diverted water away from the Everglades to meet sugarcane farmers’ needs. The Army Corps of Engineers refused to release water to Everglades National Park until much of the land was unrecognizable.

Douglas fought fervently against the Corps of Engineers and Sugarcane Farmers, saying “their mommies must have never let them play with mud pies, so now they play with cement.” She was giving a speech addressing the harmful practices of the Army Corps of Engineers when the colonel in attendance dropped his pen. As he stooped to pick it up, she stopped her speech and said, “Colonel! You can crawl under that table and hide, but you can’t get away from me!”

In 1969, at age 79, Douglas formed Friends of the Everglades. Dues were $1.00, and the purpose was to raise awareness of the potential devastation a huge jetport slated for construction in the fragile wetlands would cause. Due to Marjory’s perseverance, and the support of her 3000 Friends of the Everglades members and other environmental groups, President Nixon scrapped funding for the project after one runway was built, which still exists today.

Douglas spent the rest of her life defending the Everglades. In his introduction to her autobiography “Voice of the River,” John Rothchild described her appearance at 1973 at a public meeting as “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. She reminded us all of our responsibility to nature and I don’t remember what else. 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.”

Douglas also opposed the drainage of a suburb in Dade County named East Everglades. After the county approved building permits, the land flooded as it had for centuries. Homeowners demanded the Army Corps of Engineers drain their neighborhoods, and Marjory was the only opposition. At a 1983 hearing, the 93-year-old was booed and shouted at by the residents.

“Can’t you boo any louder than that?” she said. “Look. I’m an old lady. I’ve been here since eight o’clock. It’s now eleven. I’ve got all night, and I’m used to the heat.” County commissioners eventually decided not to drain the land. Until the day she died Douglas continued to fight for her causes. She served as a charter member of the first American Civil Liberties Union chapter organized in the South. She spoke on the floor of the Florida state legislature, urging them to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. She bolstered the Florida Rural Legal Services, a group that worked to protect migrant farm workers employed by the sugarcane industry. She co-founded the Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Libraries and served as its first president.

The Florida Department of Natural Resources named its headquarters in Tallahassee after her in 1980, to which she said she would have rather seen the Everglades restored than her name on a building. In 1986 the National Parks Conservation Association instituted the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award, honoring individuals who advocate and fight for the protection of the National Park System. And in 1991, at the age of 100, blind and near deaf, Douglas was visited by Queen Elizabeth II, to whom she gave a signed copy of “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

Douglas asked that trees be planted on her hundredth birthday in lieu of gifts, resulting in over 100,000 planted across the state of Florida, including a bald cypress on the lawn of the governor’s mansion.

In 1993, President Clinton awarded Marjory Stoneman Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian. She donated it to Wellesley College. Douglas once said that “Conservation is now a dead word… You can’t conserve what you haven’t got.” She died in 1998 at the age of 108. Her ashes were scattered in the Everglades she worked so tirelessly to preserve.

Daniel Beard, who would be the first superintendent of the Everglades National Park, wrote in 1938 that “The southern Florida wilderness scenery is a study in halftones, not bright, broad strokes of a full brush as is the case of most of our other national parks. There are no knife-edged mountains protruding up into the sky. There are no valleys of any kind. No glaciers exist, no gaudy canyons, no geysers, no mighty trees unless we except the few royal palms, not even a rockbound coast with the spray of ocean waves — none of the things we are used to seeing in our parks. Instead, there are lonely distances, intricate and monotonous waterways, birds, sky, and water. To put it crudely, there is nothing (and we include the bird rookeries) in the Everglades that will make Mr. Jonnie Q. Public suck in his breath. This is not an indictment against the Everglades as a national park, because “breath sucking” is still not the thing we are striving for in preserving wilderness areas.”

The sentiment aside, Daniel Beard was wrong. There’s plenty to suck in your breath at in the Everglades. No, you won’t be brought to your knees like many are at the first sight of the Grand Canyon, but I challenge anyone to tell me of another national park with such an array of wildlife immediately on display. It is, indeed, a magical place. But it’s true, more than beauty, The Everglades National Park is an important place.

Saving Water

There’s a great book called “The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service.” It’s a collection of stories from park service employees and volunteers. In it, Ranger David Kronk talks of a 1990 visit to the Everglades from President George H.W. Bush. Kronk lead the President and some children who were finishing a 3-day educational program on a walk. He asked the children to tell the President what the Everglades meant to them.

Among some other pithy answers, one girl described the limited water supply in South Florida, saying we need to conserve and share the water so that there is enough for the animals and plants in the park. Later that month, President Bush would mention meeting some budding young environmentalists at the Everglades in his State of the Union address. An eight-year study was commissioned by Congress the following year, and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project was authorized in 2000. At a cost of more than $10.5 billion and with a 35-year timeline, it is the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

To help restore water flow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in 2011.

Though the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project continues today, it has been compromised by politics and funding problems, and the Everglades are still in danger.

Visiting Everglades National Park

The primary access to the Everglades National Park is through Florida City, 30 miles southeast of Miami, at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. A few miles into the park is the Royal Palm Visitors Center, where you can hike two popular wheelchair-accessible half-mile trails, seeing the marshes, alligators and wading birds, along with Royal Palms and Gumbo-Limbo trees with their peeling bark.

You can then journey on the main park road 38 miles to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the southern tip of the state. On the way, you’ll wander through the parks various ecosystems, and can stop at three short walks, including an overlook where you can get a view of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s “River of Grass,” and another, where you can see the largest Mahogany tree in the U.S.

At Flamingo, you’ll see the true diversity of the park’s waterfowl. Spoonbills, ibises, snowy egrets, blue herons, and the like, wading among the mangrove trees. The area was heavily damaged during hurricane Irma, but the campground has partially re-opened. Boat tours that depart here have been suspended, but canoe and kayak rentals are now available again.

From the north on US 41, visitors can enter the park at Shark Valley, named because its water flows southwest toward Shark River. Here, you can walk, bike, or ride a tram along a 15-mile loop road and see some of the park’s best wildlife concentrations. The Shark Valley observation tower offers a 360-degree view of the Everglades, and a bird’s-eye view of alligators, turtles, fish, and birds.

From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the town of Everglades City, you can launch your boat or take a scheduled sightseeing boat tour to explore the vast mangrove estuary of the Ten Thousand Islands.
Backcountry camping, accessible by boat, is available from both the Flamingo and Gulf Coast areas. You can take an 8-day canoe trip down the maze of waterways, camping on elevated platforms along the way.

The park is open year-round, but summers can be steamy, hot, and buggy.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

“The Everglades: River of Grass” -by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Buy the seminal text on Amazon
“The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service”
A great collection of stories from National Park Service rangers and employees.
Everglades National Park Official Website
Friends of the Everglades Website
A great bio of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and a timeline of her life
Everglades Digital Library 
Audio interviews with Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Wikipedia
One of the more thorough Wikipedia biographies you’ll find
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
Donate to Marjory’s namesake school, which suffered one of the worst school shootings in history in February.

Want more National Parks? Visiting Florida? Try Gulf Islands National Seashore or Dry Tortugas National Park!