Adams, T.R. and Charlie


Published: Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 8:05 p.m.

The best Christmas presents are books. And this Christmas, my daughter Jenny gave me a gem.

It's Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt And The Crusade for America." It's a wonderfully readable, painstakingly detailed, account of how Roosevelt, a self-taught naturalist from childhood, led the campaign to establish America's vast system of national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

If you were enthralled by Ken Burns PBS series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," Brinkley's book shows you how that idea germinated, took root and spread across the nation and over the generations.

"The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose and method," Roosevelt insisted.

What struck me in reading Brinkley's book is just how deeply the roots of America's conservation movement run through Florida.

Long before Roosevelt came along, another president, John Quincy Adams, ordered the protection of 1,378 acres of Santa Rosa Island live oaks, near Pensacola.

"His motivation for saving Santa Rosa Island was ultimately utilitarian," Brinkley wrote, "its durable wood could be used to construct future U.S. naval vessels."

Whatever Adams' motivation, the fact is, we're not building wind-driven frigates anymore. And Naval Live Oaks remains to this day embedded in the Gulf Islands National Seashore."

And when Roosevelt did begin to piece together America's vast public lands empire, he didn't start with stately Yellowstone, or majestic Yosemite or awe-inspiring Grand Canyon.

He started with little Pelican Island, in the Indian River near Sebastian.

At the time, hats bedecked with feathers were all the rage with ladies in New York City. And to keep up with the demand, Florida plume hunters were systematically slaughtering egrets, herons and other bird species, including the ungainly brown pelican, a comical but improbably graceful bird that Roosevelt had a special affinity for.

"Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?" Roosevelt demanded of advisers at a White House meeting in March 1903.

Nobody said "No" to T.R.

"Very well then, I so declare it."

"From this single small island in Florida's Indian River Lagoon grew the world's greatest system of land for wildlife," Brinkley writes.

Today, Americans — each one of us — own 623 million acres of national parks and forests and wildlife refuges.

Frankly, it surprised me not at all to learn that America's conservation crusade began here in Florida. Because for all of the things our ditch-drain-and-pave-over state has done wrong, there's one thing we Floridians have done very well indeed.

We've conserved an awful lot of natural Florida to "turn over to the next generation," as T.R. once put it.

This year, the Florida Park System celebrates its 75th anniversary. Since 1935, the system has grown from eight to 160 parks encompassing more than 700,000 acres of beaches, uplands, rivers and springs and historic places.

If you want to learn more about how one of America's best state park systems came to be, check out (www.floridastateparks.org/history).

And that's not even the half of Florida's conservation ethic. Every governor since Reubin Askew has spearheaded land conservation drives. The two most recent initiatives, Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, have saved 2.4 million acres from development.

If you've ever strolled out to watch the gators in Alachua Sink, hiked the San Felasco State Hammock or biked the Gainesville-Hawthorne Rail-Trail, you've been a beneficiary of Florida's conservation ethic.

But now it turns out that Florida Forever is itself on the endangered list.

Last year, cash-strapped lawmakers raided the trust fund that finances Florida Forever bonds. And they are likely to do so again this year.

Lawmakers say that with the economy in the tank, now is no time to throw scarce dollars at land conservation.

To the contrary, now is precisely the time to buy land. Because a lot of it can be had for bargain-basement prices.

As The New York Times reported just last month, "From the Florida Everglades to the bluffs overlooking the Deschutes River in Oregon, conservationists are snapping up prime property for preservation, often at a fraction of what the asking price was at the real estate market's height."

Case in Point: The Florida Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has been trying to secure upwards of half a million acres of land to protect the rivers that flow into the Everglades.

"But this year, for the first time in two decades, shortfalls led the State of Florida not to budget its annual $300 million for land conservation," The Times reported. "Previously, the conservancy had put together deals and the state put up the cash. As a result...the conservancy has had to pass up some gems."

Recently, Gov. Charlie Crist told the Orlando Sentinel that finding money to fund Florida Forever will be one of his top priorities. For a governor who has yet to nail down his "legacy," restoring Florida's conservation ethic would be a fine coda to his Tallahassee career.

Because here's the thing, Charlie:

The American conservation movement started right here in Florida, thanks to John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt.

And keeping it alive would place our too-often belittled governor among some very good company indeed.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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