Remembering Bob Graham and his conservation ethic

April 24, 2024

Written by Dave Addison, biologist and historian

Sadly, we lost Bob Graham last week. When he left office in 1987, his approval rating was 83%. I particularly remember his “workdays” during which he did jobs that covered a broad spectrum of the jobs Americans do in their daily lives. It certainly seemed that he enjoyed them. He did several of those days at The Conservancy. It was fun for us to have him visit.

The years he was in office (1979-1987) were very good ones for Florida’s environment. His conservation ethic was very real. He established a series of what were among the most, if not the most, successful programs for acquiring lands for conservation in the nation. In 1979, he established the Conservation and Recreation Lands Program (CARL). He soon expanded the reach of CARL with the Save Our Rivers (1981), Save Our Coasts (1982), and Save Our Everglades (1983) initiatives. These were all willing seller programs. Thanks to Bob Graham’s vision, the land acquisition programs he started were carried forward by Preservation-2000 (1991) and Florida Forever (2001). 

There is not space here to explain the nuts and bolts involved in proposing, adding, appraising, and prioritizing acquisition projects to these programs, but The Conservancy made good use of these acquisition programs. There may be no better example of their good outcomes than in Collier County. A few examples follow.

The beginnings of what is now Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR) started in 1966 when The Conservancy raised money to purchase what became the 4,000 acre National Audubon Sanctuary. When it later was included in the National Estuarine Program, protecting the core area within the preserve was a priority. A larger boundary was successfully proposed for inclusion in the CARL Program. The lands within this boundary, as well as additional tracts were acquired, so that the area RBNERR now manages is 110,000 acres (70,000 of submerged land and 40,000 of mangrove forest, freshwater wetlands, and uplands).

What is now the 60,000 acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, began as a Save Our Rivers project proposal that was jointly proposed by The Conservancy and Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The original proposal included only the 8,900 acre Bird Rookery Swamp, however, during the review process staff at the South Florida Water Management District successfully expanded the original proposal to include the entire watershed around Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

What is now the Picayune Strand State Forest was once a failed land scam known as Southern Golden Gate Estates. A system of roads and canals was constructed to drain the land, so it could be sold to unsuspecting buyers in 1.5-5 acre lots. Over 17,000 people bought lots that totaled 34,000 acres. Save Our Rivers funds were used to complete this complex acquisition. The Conservancy assisted in obtaining landowner information to help expedite the purchase of lots. The PSSF was established in 1995. The core area and adjacent South Belle Meade CARL project to the west (a joint proposal by The Conservancy and RBNERR) encompasses 78,000 acres. The PSSF is now part of the Greater Everglades Restoration Project, the hydrological restoration of this vast wetland system began in 2007.

Without Bob Graham’s conservation ethic, much of the land mentioned in this brief synopsis would not have been saved from urban sprawl. We are certainly indebted to him for this. Graham knew Marjory Stoneman Douglas well and respected her opinions. Years ago, while he was attending a groundbreaking ceremony with Marjory, he asked her how he was doing to which she replied, “Not enough, Bob. Not nearly enough.” I’m sure he took her words to heart. They were as true then as they are now.