July 14, 2008

Conservationist Documents Biscayne National Park’s Creation

By Tere Figueras Negrete, The Miami Herald

Jul. 14--The thousands of visitors who come to Biscayne National Park in the coming months -- to snorkel through coral reefs, glide along on a glass-bottom boat or cast a rod into the rippling waves -- may well owe a debt of gratitude to Lloyd Miller.

Not that Miller was thinking of personal acclaim when he sat down last year and began putting pen to paper.

"It always bothered me that while I had gotten some credit for the park's creation none of the other people who participated ever did," said Miller, whose love for the glittering and fragile waters of the bay inspired what seemed, at least at the time, a quixotic quest to keep it pristine.

"I was determined that somewhere along the line somebody was going to get to know their names," he said. "Even though most of them are dead now."

The result: Biscayne National Park: It Almost Wasn't, a 160-page account of the battle over the bay, one that pitted political and building interests against a motley assortment of fledgling activists -- and which sparked so much acrimony that the park's official website, to this day, notes the "Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on the two feuding groups."

That description is perhaps an understatement, said Juanita Greene, the Herald's environmental reporter at the time.

"It was more like David and Goliath," said Greene, who would be a key ally in the fight.

"I could see he was a person that was very effective in any crusade," said Greene, who is now conservation chairwoman of Friends of the Everglades. "When he sets out to do something, he's like a bulldog and won't let things go."

Miller, who turned 88 this past week and lives on a quiet rural street in the Redland, said he had a second motive for writing the book.

"Maybe other people will learn from us that, yeah, occasionally you can whip City Hall," he said.


The pitched battle began when Miller and a few others caught wind of plans that would have drastically altered the physical landscape of the bay.

The first was an oil refinery and port called Seadade that would have plowed a channel through the shallow bay all the way to a tanker complex near what is now the Homestead Air Reserve Base.

The second threat came in the form of Islandia, which would have laced the string of barrier islands with condominiums and causeways, in hopes of turning them into a southern version of Miami Beach.

Miller, then the president of the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group named for the author of a famous book on angling, was having none of it -- and neither was the small but vocal group of similar-minded folks who joined in the fight in 1962.

"We were originally never more than 10 or 12 people," he said. "And these were just people from all walks of life. Fishing rod manufacturers, itinerant salesmen, housewives, garden-clubbers and God knows whatnot. We were an odd assortment."

The group made hundreds of speeches, knocked on hundreds of doors and enlisted the help of printers and secretaries to produce and distribute thousands of pamphlets decrying the threat of development and industrial pollution.

Tempers flared, shouts erupted at public meetings, and Miller -- then a middle-manager at Pan American airlines -- began to fear for his livelihood and family safety.

"It got pretty rancorous, to the point they even poisoned my dog," said Miller, who said he woke one morning to find his little dachshund dead outside his home.

'Then I got a phone call and some voice says, 'I hear your dog is sick.' I hadn't told anyone yet about the dog," he said, shaking his head. "Poor little thing."

His supervisors at Pan Am were kind enough to let him "skip school and go to meetings," as he puts it. "They were forever getting calls about me. Luckily, my bosses loved the bay."

At one point, the plans for Islandia and the oil refinery seemed a fait accompli, enjoying the support of local politicians, powerful industrial interests and, for a time, The Miami Herald.

But the group plowed ahead, and eventually managed to turn the tide of public opinion. Juanita Greene, then an environmental reporter for The Herald, championed the cause and helped persuade the paper to change its original stance.

A slew of others joined: the anonymous "little people," as Miller calls them; sympathetic ears in the Army Corps of Engineers; even Herbert Hoover Jr., the vacuum cleaner magnate, who used his fortune to pay for trips and environmental studies in a bid to sway lawmakers.

Six years later, the battle was all but won: On Oct. 18, 1968, the federal government made Biscayne Bay a national monument, a designation that protected it from development. Miller was there, along with U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, a Florida Democrat who became an ally of the activists, and a few others, when President Johnson signed the monument into law.


In 1980 came the official designation as a national park. About 95 percent of the park's 207 square miles are under water, home to more than 500 species of fish, a half-dozen or so shipwrecks, and threatened and endangered species such as sea turtles and the West Indian manatee.

Miller rarely gets a chance to putter out on the waters where he fished as a younger man -- but does make it a point to visit the park several times a week, he says.

His book, which he paid to have published and which he donated to the South Florida National Parks Trust, recently went on sale inside the park's gift shop for $14.95. It will also be available online through www.evergladesassociation.org later this month. Proceeds benefit the park.

Miller culled archives at the University of Miami, as well as his own extensive memory, for the book, which he wrote first longhand and then had his wife transcribe the multiple drafts "because she is the only one who can read my handwriting."

The park will commemorate the 40th anniversary of its monument status with a ceremony later this year.

"It's a fitting title," said Park Ranger Astrid Goderich, who, like many of the rangers, are on a first-name basis with Miller. "It really almost wasn't. And without him, none of this would be here."

Sitting on a bench at the Dante B. Fascell visitor center, Miller looked out at the expanse of water shimmering in the hot, mid-summer afternoon.

A young couple sat in the shade of a nearby seagrape tree. A mother busied herself setting up a picnic while her school-age children chased each other along the shore. And in the distance, a speck of a boat headed off toward the horizon to parts unknown.

Miller, with a tilt of his straw Panama Jack hat, smiled.

"This is a lot better than an oil refinery," he said. "Don't you think?"


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