Everglades Evangelist

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE FORUM HAD BEEN CALLED TO DEBATE THE FATE OF A slice of the Everglades, that grand swamp in south Florida. Developers and farmers wanted to drain and reclaim a prime 240-square-mile tract. When feisty conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then in her 80s, approached the dais, her red straw "fighting hat" firmly in place, the jeers grew. The slightly deaf Douglas laughed and said, "Boo louder." They did. She patiently waited them out before launching yet another spirited defense of the natural wonder (once larger than seven Rhode Islands) known to the Seminole Indians as Pa-hay-okee, "Grassy Water."

That site remains intact. "It had to be done, otherwise I wouldn't have done it," says Douglas, now 101. "And I wouldn't have done it if I didn't enjoy it." Indeed, she has spent much of the last 25 years thwarting those whose fantasies of luxe condos, golf resorts and megafarms would have further defaced an irreplaceable wilderness.

At the dawn of the century, the Everglades spanned 9,000 square miles. Acting as a broad, shallow river flowing from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, it brimmed with such exotic fauna as panthers and roseate spoonbills and such flora as saw grass and mangrove trees. "It was wonderful and beautiful and empty," recalls Douglas, who moved to Florida in 1915, a half century before she became the Everglades' foremost champion.

Born in Minnesota, Marjory was raised in Taunton, Mass., by her mother and grandparents after her folks separated when she was 5. In 1913, a year after graduating from Wellesley, she wed Kenneth Douglas, who was 30 years her senior—and who was soon in jail for writing a bogus cheek. To speed a divorce, she moved to Miami, where her father, Frank Stoneman, had started the newspaper that became today's Herald. Asked to fill in for a reporter on leave, Douglas found her vocation: writing. In 1924 she quit, built a one-bedroom cottage that's still home and began free-lancing for magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal. That eventually led to a contract to research and write The Everglades: River of Grass.

The landmark book forever linked author and cause when it appeared in 1947 (long before "ecology" entered the national vocabulary). In it, Douglas recognized that due to human encroachment, "the Everglades were dying. The endless acres of saw grass, brown as an enormous shadow where rain and lake water had once flowed, rustled dry...there was a sense of evil abroad, a restlessness, an anxiety that one passing rainfall could not change." Her eloquent warning changed the popular perception of the area from dismal swamp to that of a magnificent but fragile ecosystem of subtropical flora and fauna.

That same year the Everglades were designated a national park—yet, ironically, the Army Corps of Engineers soon embarked on a series of projects that misguidedly diverted Lake Okeechobee's waters around the park. Douglas participated in the resistance movement but didn't become a card-carrying activist until a developer proposed carving from the marshes a massive new airport.

In 1970 she founded the nonprofit friends of the Everglades, which not only helped block the airport but also continued to lobby—with impressive results. One victory: In 1984 Washington authorized the rediversion of the Kissimmee River so it can once again nourish withered marshlands. And this July, Florida settled a protracted lawsuit by agreeing to create a 35,000-acre marshland just below Lake Okeechobee to cleanse the water flowing south into the Everglades of agricultural chemicals. In all, the federal and state governments are committing $800 million over the next decade to undo the damage they have wrought.

"That's all fine, but there's a lot more work to be done," says Douglas, who last year retired from the Friends of the Everglades to finish her eighth book, a biography of 19th-century English naturalist W.H. Hudson. Yet her faded-red fighting hat perches on a nearby statue—just in case her beloved River of Grass needs another hand from an old friend.

—T.C.; CINDY DAMPIER in Miami

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