Split Oak, a feeling of perpetual loss

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently agreed with the Central Florida Expressway Authority and Osceola County, to allow a new toll road through the Split Oak.  Though the property was purchased in 1992 with Preservation 2000 funds to mitigate the loss of gopher tortoise habitat and protected with conservation easements to protect its natural resource values “in perpetuity,” the forces of money and development won out again.  Apparently, perpetuity only means protection for thirty-two years, or until enough money and influence is amassed to sacrifice it.   Living amidst the Central Florida growth machine continues to be a feeling of perpetual loss.

Few properties had as much apparent protection as Split Oak.  First, the property was purchased with both mitigation funds and funding through the state’s land acquisition program.  An interagency agreement between Orange and Osceola Counties, Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, and Florida Communities Trust committed the property to be managed for “conservation, preservation, and enhancement of natural resources.” A conservation easement to what is now the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission guaranteed protection of the property “in perpetuity.”

In 1998, voters amended the Florida Constitution to provide protection for conservation lands.  It requires that before conservation lands can be released there must be a finding that the property “is no longer needed for conservation purposes,” and a supermajority vote is required to release it.  Both Orange and Osceola Counties opined that provision did not apply to them, but Orange County voters felt otherwise.  In 2020, voters approved a charter amendment to specifically protect the Split Oak Forest. 

One by one these layers of protection were unwound.  The Florida Communities Trust approved the road as part of a “linear facilities” exception.  Osceola County decided to go it alone.  Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed to waive its perpetual easement for a boatload of money. Commissioners explained their mission was to protect fish and wildlife and this settlement provided more money to buy more land.  But there’s a catch. According to the staff presentation, the money will be used to buy inholdings and additions to their Wildlife Management Areas, used for public hunting lands.

This loss is personal to me.  In 1991, I served on the first Florida Communities Trust governing board.  The Game Commission came to us with the idea of establishing a regional mitigation area for loss of gopher tortoise habitat.  I met with their staff and county representatives and pulled the idea together.  It was conceptually approved in 1992 and formal agreements were signed in 1994.  I thought we were protecting this land in perpetuity. Obviously, it wasn’t enough.

Florida voters have expressed their desire to protect conservation lands on several occasions.  Voters in 1998 overwhelmingly approved the constitutional bonding authority for what became Florida Forever.  In 2014, voters approved Amendment 1, the largest conservation finance authorization in our nation’s history.  Both measures were approved with the understanding that lands purchased for conservation would remain protected in perpetuity.  But it’s not just that.  Split Oak was purchased as compensation for habitat lost to new development.  Release of property dedicated in perpetuity as mitigation, is unprecedented and as a practical matter results in further acceleration of habitat loss. 

If there is any silver lining in this proposed result it is a recognition that conservation lands are incredibly valuable, and the true cost of restoration and management is significant.  The money extracted from the growth machine demonstrates that.  The other lesson is that if we really want to protect our conservation lands, we need to close these loopholes which will make way for bulldozers, road pavers, and new development.  

Florida has done more than any other state to promote land conservation. It is an incredible legacy we can leave for future generations, but we need to see Split Oak as the exception rather than the rule.     

Conservation Easements

A recent story in Florida Phoenix by Craig Pittman got many people talking about conservation easements.   Concern has been raised in some quarters that conservation easements don’t protect lands in perpetuity because of a loophole in state law. So, let’s take a deep dive on conservation easements.

What is a conservation easement?  A conservation easement is a conveyance of an interest in land from a private landowner to either a government agency or a quality non-profit organization that defines certain rights given up by the landowner and other rights held by the grantee.  Some people call this “less than fee” acquisition of a property and a typical transaction keeps a private property owner in control of the land, but all or nearly all development rights are released.  It’s a great way to keep good stewards of the lands in control of the management of the land, but it takes away any threat of future development. 

What is perpetuity?  Conservation easements are typically conveyed “in perpetuity,” or forever.  This is a fairly new concept in real estate law.  America inherited much of the British Common Law when we began our own system of jurisprudence.  When Florida became a state, the first law it passed was acceptance of the common law of England from 1066 to July 4, 1776. For centuries the common law prohibited long term restrictions on land in what every law student learns is the Law Against Perpetuities.  Over time, American jurisprudence has loosened these allowing churches, universities, and other non-profit institutions to own property in perpetuity.  The Internal Revenue Code allows a significant charitable donation when a landowner conveys a conservation easement to a qualified non-profit where the easement is held in perpetuity.  Florida law has mirrored this provision since 1993. 

Are there different kinds of conservation easements?  Conservation easements are individually drafted to meet the needs of the landowner and the holder of the easement.  Generally speaking, we have three different types of conservation easements.  As noted above, one popular type of conservation easement is a donation by a landowner of development rights to a non-profit conservation organization.  These easements are required to be in perpetuity.  They can only be released by a court and if they are released could subject the landowner to a hefty tax bill.  A second form of conservation easement is a less than fee acquisition by a government agency.  Since 1996, Florida has the authority to acquire a conservation easement through the Preservation 2000 or Florida Forever land acquisition program.  These easements are also required to be perpetual. A third kind of conservation easement is a regulatory easement.  Sometimes a permitting agency will condition a development permit on recording a conservation easement over certain lands the agency wants to see preserved.  Sometimes a conservation easement is given as mitigation for adverse impacts to natural resources.  Mitigation Banks record conservation easements on land to protect certain natural resource values as a condition of allowing wetlands to be impacted for developed.  These easements are also perpetual and require an endowment to ensure long term management of the land.

Can conservation easements be released.  Technically they can be released as there might be certain changes in circumstances over time.  But there are various restrictions on release of easements, making it difficult.  As noted above, a charitable easement if released will cause the landowner a significant tax penalty. Conservation easements held by a government agency in Florida can only be released through a process spelled out in the Florida Constitution.  Before any conservation easement can be released, there must be a finding by the agency that the property must no longer be needed for conservation purposes, and it requires a supermajority vote to approve.  In addition, conservation easements purchased through Florida Forever or the Rural and Family Lands Program have an “extinguishment clause” which requires and such easement to be released only by a court order.   According to the Florida Division of State Lands, there has never been a release of a conservation easement purchased through a state land acquisition program.   On the other hand, regulatory easements can be amended or released by the government agencies, though it generally involves some trade in land or interests to enhance the natural resource values to be protected.

Bottom Line.  Conservation easements have proved to be a very effective way to conserve property. While it’s not impossible to release an easement, it remains very hard.  Agencies and conservation organizations should include in all their easements a requirement that they should not be released without change of circumstances and review by the courts. 


Book Tour at Year End

As 2023 comes to a close, I’d like to thank so many friends and supporters who made this a great year.  With over 30 events from Tallahassee to Miami, the Forces of Nature book tour covered the state. I called it my victory lap and it was a nice opportunity to see family, old friends, colleagues, former students, and fellow travelers. 

High Points.  There were a few stops along the way that were high points for the year.  The Leadership Florida Annual Meeting in Boca Raton brought together nearly 1000 graduates of this outstanding program.  It was nice to be a part of the Writer’s Circle which featured LF Alums who had written a book in 2023.  The Florida Wildlife Corridor Conference in Orlando was an opportunity to bring together hundreds of people interesting in land conservation and completion of the 18 million acres Florida Wildlife Corridor.  It was as honor to be the warmup act for Carlton Ward and his outstanding wildlife photography.  Afterwards, Carlton and I signed books for two hours.  Though late in 2022, we kicked off the book tour at the Miami Book Fair which is the best venue for writers in the state. 


Recognition. It was a distinct honor to have Forces of Nature recognized by the Florida Historical Society with the Stetson Kennedy Award, at its annual meeting in Lakeland.  It’s an annual award given by the Stetson Kennedy Foundation to recognize a book which highlights environmental advocacy. 


Back to School. Colleges always make a nice venue to meet with students, faculty, and the community.  I made presentations at   Florida State University, Stetson University, Flagler College, University of South Florida, Florida Southern College, and Stetson College of Law. 


Multi-Media:  Not every presentation was in person as more people get their information in webinars and documentaries.  We did several podcasts including Craig Pittman’s “Welcome to Florida”, and webinars for 1000 Friends of Florida and the American Society for Environmental History.  It was particularly gratifying to work with the producers of Protect Our Paradise, a six-segment documentary on Florida’s environmental issues.  I appeared in each episode which ran statewide on many local stations and The Florida Channel. 


Cool Things:  The chapter in Forces of Nature on National Seashores became the basis for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places for the Doris Leeper House.  It was a distinct honor to speak at the first public event at the newly designated historic site and visit with many old friends of Doc Leeper.  It was also nice to stop by the Hamilton County Museum to see my books on display as my family roots are there.  It was also gratifying to be the keynote speaker at Florida Defenders of the Environment to honor my dear late friend John Hankinson, who was very much a force of nature.


Low Point:  After making over 20 trips to Florida, there is no question that air travel was consistently the low point of the year.  I couldn’t tell you how many hours were spent dealing with cancelled or delayed flights.  I spent one memorable night sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta Airport due to two cancelled flights and lack of hotel rooms anywhere and missed my book signing in Fernandina.  Never again!


Thanks to friends, family, colleagues, students, and others who came out and showed their support this year.  Hopefully we’ve inspired a new generation of conservationists to do what it takes to save the best of Florida before it’s too late.

Coming in 2024:  My new book, Audubon's Birds of Florida, will be available in late summer as part of an oustanding exhibit of original Florida bird prints by John James Audubon.  The exhibition will be at the Hyatt and Cici Brown Museum of Florida Art, part of the Museum of Arts and Sciences.  The book chronicles Audubon's expedition to Florida in 1831-1832 where flocks of birds were so thick they "darkened the skies."


Doris Leeper was a Force of Nature

Remarks of Clay Henderson

Celebration of Women's History Month

Canaveral National Seashore

March 26, 2023

I am happy to be here at Doc Leeper’s house in celebration of women’s history month at Canaveral National Seashore.  I was a friend and co-conspirator with Doc during the last 20 years of her life.  She was an amazing visionary with the ability to get things done.  I first met her here in 1980.  Of course, it was a little different then with her tennis court next to her art studio.  Next to the tennis court was a deck with built in benches and there was usually a pitcher of gin and tonic at the ready.  


 I’m very proud to see the bronze marker on the front of this house, recognizing its designation on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a multi-year effort, started by the park service, and then by friends of Doc to make this happen. This recognition is unusual and a tribute to Doc’s leadership during the time she lived here.  The house itself is not historic since there were so many other bungalows just like this from the 1920s. To be listed on the national register the house had to be associated with a person of significance in our nation’s history.  Usually, this historical context is not established until a person has been gone for more than 50 years, but there are exceptions. Two examples come to mind and place this in context.  Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was the spark which ignited the modern conservation movement.  Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ book Everglades River of Grass brought national attention to the plight of the Florida Everglades.  Both homes were listed on the National Register less than 50 years after the deaths of their owners.  The Florida Historic Preservation Officer determined that the  Doris Leeper house is significant at the state and local levels for its association with “Doc” Leeper and her significance in the areas of Art and Conservation. Leeper was a nationally recognized artist whose environmental advocacy was instrumental in the establishment of Canaveral National Seashore and its management primarily as a conservation area. We celebrate that today.  And I’ll return more to talk later.


Doc Leeper was one of many women who have contributed to conservation in Florida who I have highlighted in my book Forces of Nature. We can begin with Clara, Dommerich and Laura, Mars who in 1900 were among the founders of the Florida Audubon Society. They organized to oppose the massive slaughter of herons, egrets, spoonbills, and other wading birds across Florida. Long before  the establishment of  Everglades National Park they hired Guy Bradley as Florida‘s first wildlife warden to protect the birds in South Florida.  Unfortunately, Bradley was murdered by the plume hunters but the women and Florida Audubon society continued to work to protect the birds and their habitat.


About  the same time May Mann Jennings was Florida’s First Lady.  After her husband left the Governor’s Mansion, May became active in the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, and was elected their president.  The club took on the project of protecting Royal Palm Hammock in the Everglades.  It was a high spot sometimes called Paradise Key covered with the majestic native royal palms.  May took on the job of lobbying the Governor, Cabinet, and Legislature to protect Royal Palm Hammock.  She was successful and it marked the first time in Florida’s history that the state acted to protect land, and all of this was accomplished before May and her friends even had the right to vote.  Today, Paradise Key is part of Everglades National Park. 


A few years later, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas came to Miami to work with her father who was the editor of a new paper called the Miami Herald. She immediately became interested in the Everglades, and soon wrote a nationally syndicated story about the murder of Guy Bradley.  She became convinced that Everglades should be a national park helped form the Tropical Everglades National Park Association to promote the effort.  She and Ernest Coe arranged to give the Secretary of Interior and director of the National Park Service a birds-eye view of the Everglades in the brand new Goodyear Blimp.  Afterwards Douglas began work on a pivotal book, Everglades River of Grass which changed the way that way that people looked at what they otherwise thought was a swamp. The book became a best seller.  In 1947, President Truman, dedicated Everglades National Park with both May Mann Jennings, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas with front row seats.  Rep. Ruth Bryan Owens, one of the first women members of Congress, sponsored the legislation to  establish Everglades National Park, now considered one of America’s great national parks.


In the 1960s, Florida was beginning to boom.  Miami Dade County Commissioners  wanted to construct a supersonic jetport just west of Everglades National Park.  Other boosters wanted to develop all the islands in Biscayne Bay as the new City of Islandia, while the richest man in the world wanted to construct the nation’s largest oil refinery and tanker port in Biscayne Bay.  Women came to the rescue.   Marjory Stoneman Douglas came out of retirement to found Friends of the Everglades while Miami Herald journalist Juanita Greene stirred up public opposition to the assault on Biscayne Bay.  Today we can be grateful to both for the establishment of Big Cypress National Preserve and Biscayne National Park.


Margaret Roebling was at unlikely conservationist. She was the socialite wife of John Roebling, an engineer whose father and grandfather built and designed the Brooklyn Bridge.  Unfortunately, Margaret suffered from tuberculosis and moved to Florida for its warmer climate.  Margaret bought a farmhouse on the Lake Wales Ridge near Sebring but immediately fell in love with a nearby area locally known as Highland Hammock. Roebling led the effort to acquire the hammock and open it as a park. Shortly after that, she died and her husband John donated it to the state of Florida in her honor.  Highland Hammock State Park is Florida’s oldest state park.  


We can fast forward to more recent times to highlight a few other women who have made an incredible impact in Florida. Marjorie Harris Carr liked to bill herself as a housewife from Micanopy, but she was a trained scientist and the wife of Archie Carr who at the time was the world’s leading turtle biologist.  In 1964, construction began on the Cross Florida Barge Canal to open shipping between the Gulf and Atlantic.  Marjorie Harris Carr began a systematic  study the environmental  impacts of this effort, and came to the belief that it would destroy the Floridan Aquifer as well as the Ocklawaha River. It’s a story about never ever giving up, and even as the barge canal was under construction.  Carr and her followers changed public opinion on the Canal and President Nixon and the courts brought it to  a halt. Today, a 70 mile long linear park called the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway is the largest state park in Florida.


And more recent times to other Florida women have made a major impact nationally. Carol Browner, from Miami served eight years as a Director of the Environmental Protection Agency and worked to make the restoration of the Everglades national priority. This culminated in the passage of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the largest environmental restoration in the history of our country.


During the same time, Florida passed the Preservation 2000 program which set aside $3 billion for acquisition of conservation lands, and almost 2,000,000 acres were acquired under this program, including the establishment of 17 new state parks. This happened under the leadership of Fran Manella, who was state parks director at that time. In 2001, she became the first woman to lead the National Park Service.


So now let’s return to Canaveral.  In the 1950s,  a single washboard road extended south from New Smyrna and Bethune Beach to a House of Refuge operated by the US Life-saving Service.  A lone fish camp was in operation adjacent to Turtle Mound.  On the banks of the lagoon was the old village of Eldora, a stopover place for steamboats that plied the lagoon in the era before the railroad.  A few structures were still in use including the Eldora Hotel, the State House, and the old post office. There was nothing south of Eldora until Cape Canaveral.


In 1958, up and coming artist Doris Leeper made a fishing trip to Mosquito Lagoon and saw a run-down wooden two-story house among in the palm hammock.  The house was built in 1927 during the heyday of the Florida Land Boom that soon went bust, and had been vacant for years.  Leeper always knew what she wanted and she wanted that house.  That same year she was featured in two  New York shows and with cash in hand she returned to Florida and bought the old house for $1000 down and $1000 a year for ten years.  She named the house Caper’s Acres after her Great Dane.   


She restored the old servant’s quarters as an art studio and constructed a tennis court.  Over the next ten years she would focus on her art and eventually become a nationally recognized artist.  Over this same decade, the world outside Eldora was changing rapidly and encroaching on her remote studio sanctuary.  She spent an increasing amount of her time committed to advocacy for the conservation of Canaveral and Mosquito Lagoon.


At the same time Leeper was moving to Canaveral, other significant historical events were being shaped just a few miles to the south. The Space Race had begun and NASA announced plans to acquire a significant footprint of land round Cape Canaveral. By 1963, NASA had acquired over 100,000 acres of land along Cape Canaveral north to within a few miles of Eldora.    


The space race led to a new wave of boosterism and development.  In 1962, Volusia County Commissioners considered paving the road to Eldora to open it up to development.  Leeper stood up to stop the road.   It marked the first time that governmental officials would observe that Leeper could be an effective force of resistance.  She successfully stopped a rezoning request to authorize a condominium on the lagoon in Eldora.  She fought off  a plan to authorize a 350-unit trailer park that would have stretched from the lagoon to the beach.  She protested fish camp owners bringing in more trailers and taking down trees.  If any of the proposed developments would have taken hold in Eldora it would have been a huge impediment to establishment of a national seashore.  


In 1963 Florida voters approved a bond issue to acquire state parks.  State officials looked at the area around Turtle Mound Historic Site for what was envisioned as Apollo Beach State Park.  Leeper emerged as the leader in this effort.  Over the next ten years the state acquired 9,000 acres that they hoped would induce the federal government to establish a National Seashore.


During the 1960s Caper’s Acres became the headquarters for both her art and urgent advocacy.  Among her frequent visitors were Lou and Marcia Frey who were both art patrons and tennis players.  In 1968, Lou Frey was elected to Congress in a Republican sweep and kept returning for tennis matches at Caper’s Acres.  On numerous occasions he heard her vision for the seashore.  Frey has often said Leeper was “the driving force behind establishment of Canaveral National Seashore.”


By 1970, Leeper was well recognized as a notable Florida artist. As her reputation grew she rubbed shoulders with many political leaders and national foundations. She was appointed to local boards and attended national conferences where she advocated for national seashore status for Canaveral and protection of Mosquito Lagoon. 


In 1973, Rep. Frey and Bill Chappell introduced legislation to establish 35,000 acres of barrier island as a national seashore, a bill co-sponsored by 14 members of the Florida Congressional Delegation.   It would take influence from both Frey and Chappell to pass the bill.  The National Park Service opposed establishment of the seashore during the final turbulent days of the Nixon presidency because they opposed new national parks.  In December 1974 Congress passed the Canaveral National Seashore Bill and President Ford signed it into law over the continuing objection of the National Park Service.    


Leeper’s vision was imbedded in the final version of the bill.  The Seashore Enabling Act was amended to cover 67,000 acres and not just the beach, banned cars from the beach and dunes, and established the Canaveral Advisory Commission to which Leeper was appointed.  But the bill came with another surprise: with authorization and funds for the National Park Service to buy out all the landowners within the Seashore.  Ironically, the establishment of Canaveral National Seashore eventually would lead to Leeper’s eviction from Capers Acres.


Although the National Seashore was authorized, it was hardly established.  There were no park rangers, no entrance gate, and the 9000 acres of state park lands had not been transferred to the National Park Service.  From the very beginning, Leeper emerged as the chief protector of what she saw as a fragile and vulnerable ecosystem.  In February 1975, Leeper founded Friends of Canaveral as a citizens’ group to focus on efforts to protect Canaveral National Seashore and to guide the development of a park management plan which would protect the park's natural resources. Her first order of business was to press restricted access to the seashore and, specifically, to stop vehicles from crossing over the dunes to drive on the soft-shell beach.  Leeper received many "hate calls" and threats.  It was during this time that she felt most vulnerable living alone and isolated in a national park without park rangers.


Leeper and Friends of Canaveral led the effort to designate much of the seashore as Wilderness.  It was a battle for the soul of the park.    Leeper used her position on the Advisory Commission to mount a very public campaign to have most of Mosquito Lagoon and the beaches south of the old House of Refuge site designated as wilderness.  On two separate occasions, the Advisory Commission voted 3-2 to support wilderness designation, but the Park Service opposed the designation.   But all these years later, Leeper’s vision for the Seashore has basically been adopted.   There is limited access and protection for thousands of acres of natural areas and Mosquito Lagoon.      


Following the battle over Wilderness, Leeper turned her attention to her art.  She established Atlantic Center for the Arts along Turnbull Bay and worked to protect the adjacent Spruce Creek.  The 2500 acres Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve now bears her name.


In 2000, Doris Leeper died following a long battle with cancer.  Prior to and following her death a series of recognitions brought her life’s work into focus.  Stetson University and Duke University awarded her honorary doctorate degrees. Florida Audubon Society presented Leeper a legacy award given also to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Marjorie Carr.  The Florida Secretary of State named her Florida Arts Ambassador and she was named to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. The official citation reads:  “By the early 1970s, Leeper had become a well-known figure in Florida's nascent environmentalism movement.  Her home in Eldora became the focal point for a campaign to preserve 24 miles of ocean-front property from development.  She is credited with being instrumental in the creation of the 58,000-acre Canaveral National Seashore, created in 1975 by an act of Congress.  The preserve remains the longest stretch of undeveloped beach on Florida's east coast.”  Following her death, the Florida House of Representatives adopted a resolution honoring her as “artist, educator, arts activist, innovative thinker, and environmentalist" and to "express its heartfelt gratitude for the contribution she made to the state, the nation, and the world.”  


Former Congressman Lou Frey noted “She had accomplished many great things: the Atlantic Center for the Arts, which flourishes with deep artistic meaning for the world; the National Seashore Park, a true treasure for the nation.  She was “a force of nature.”

Forces of Nature: John Henry Hankinson, Jr.

Remarks of Clay Henderson
Florida Defenders of the Environment Banquet
February 3, 2023
Gainesville, Florida

It is a distinct honor to be here tonight to present this year’s Marjorie Harris Carr Award for Environmental Advocacy.  There have been four previous winners: Carl Hiaasen, Nathaniel Reed, Buddy MacKay, and Bob Graham.  Tonight, we add the name John Henry Hankinson, Jr to this distinguished list of environmental icons. We’ve heard some of John’s music tonight, so we know he’s here in spirit and we are also honored to have John’s extended family here tonight.   

John Hankinson was a larger than life figure who I was proud to call both friend and co-conspirator.  His death hit me very hard and the subsequent loss of our mutual friends and colleagues  George Willson and Nathaniel Reed finally made me stop everything else and write Forces of Nature, a history of land conservation in Florida. John is an important part of the story.  John was fond of say his standard for purchase of conservation lands was every Yankee’s dream: BIG, WET, and CHEAP.  By my calculations, John was personally involved in the acquisition of over 300,000 acres of Florida conservation lands.

John was a towering figure in conservation, and not just because of his size. Early in his career he had some important mentors, including Buddy MacKay and Marjory Harris Carr, and his first job in Tallahassee was working for Bill Sadowski.

Carr tapped him to open a Tallahassee office for FDE to lobby state government on restoration of the Oklawaha.  His work gained the attention of Governor Bob Graham who appointed him to the Environmental Land Use and Management Study Committee we now call ELMS-II which recommended the integrated state, regional, and local comprehensive plan system we have since called Growth Management. 

While John was walking the halls of the Capitol he would regularly bump into Henry Dean, then at DNR and later SJRWMD.  Henry recalls that every time he would see John, he would press him to figure out a way to buy up land along the Silver River.  In 1986, Henry gave John the chance to do it by naming him head of Planning and Acquisition at SJRWMD.

Dean put John to work on acquisition of lands in the headwaters of the St. Johns River.  Through the Save Our Rivers Program,  over 165,000 acres were acquired from Seminole Ranch south to Blue Cypress Lake.  The headwaters restoration is truly an environmental success story.

I first met John in 1987, after my election to the Volusia County Council.  John wanted to get to know me because we just passed the first in the national local government conservation program and I had  $20 million to spend.  John and his sidekick Charlie Houder showed up on my doorstep and said let’s go shopping! We drove all around the middle St. Johns looking at properties with vast flood plains and ancient cypress trees with knees as tall as John and me.  We took a small john-boat from Lake Harney up Deep Creek and it wasn’t for the faint of heart.  With me and John in the small boat there wasn’t much freeboard and massive 10 foot gators swam by and took note.  Our first joint purchase was 5,000 acres along the St. Johns slated for a new Wal-Mart Super Center!

From that point on, John was the promoter of conservation partnerships.  In 1990 the legislature passed Preservation 2000, providing $300 million a year for ten years.  John, Geogre Willson and I were appointed to the P2000 implementation commission to figure out how to get more bang for the buck.  The Wekiva emerged as a statewide priority and 10,000 acres were soon acquired in partnerships with the state and local counties. 

John hosted the first Land Partnership meeting at the Holiday Inn in Palatka and admonished all of us to THINK BIG!  Together we teamed up to acquire 57,000 acres on the east side of Lake George.  TNC state director John Flicker, John, and I took a county helicopter up to get a bird’s eye view of this massive project that contained 17 bald eagle nests.  Unfortunately, our combined weight caused the helicopter to succumb to gravity.  Alarms went off and the chopper went into transmission failure while our pilot picked out a small postage stamp clearing in the forest to land in a controlled crash. We walked out alive and bought what is now Lake George State Forest, but John and I never flew together again!

Following the election of 1992, Carol Browner went to Washington to head EPA.  She called her old law school buddy John to be Region 4 Director  in Atlanta to oversee eight southern states.  It was an exciting time, and a year later I was tapped as head of Florida Audubon.  My first call was to John.   The Everglades Restoration became a national priority and deal-maker John was right in the middle of the acquisition of 55,000 acre Talisman Sugar property.  The deal was announced by Vice President Gore on the 50th Anniversary of Everglades National Park.  John also was involved in the National Estuary Program for the Indian River Lagoon and the ACF Compact.  But he was also the bane of existence for every pulp and paper mill in every southern state who continued to discharge toxic chemicals into rivers.  John Hankinson pushed them hard to clean up their act.  Several plants closed down and our rivers are cleaner as a result. 

While those were big things, there we little things too.  One morning I got a call from John saying he had received a share of the Exxon Valdez fines and wanted to know what we could do with $2 million dollars.  He knew we had a federally approved restoration fund for the Keys.  There were many places on Key Largo that had been purchased by P2000, but had already been cleared for development.  John gave Audubon the money and we bought every mahogany seedling from every nursery in South Florida and planted them on North Key Largo.  I visited some of those places in November and now they have returned to once again be the only tropical maritime forest in the US.

John also set the bar for sustainable development.  He oversaw the re-development of a nasty brownfield site in downtown Atlanta to re-emerge as Atlantic Station, the very picture of sustainable development.

Throughout his time at EPA, the Everglades was a daily order of business jockeying between West Palm Beach, Tallahassee, and Washington.  Just before leaving office, President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Act into law.  John’s fingerprints were all over that historic piece of legislation.

Those of us who knew John, understood this was but one side of his life.  The other side was his music and his comradery with everyone who shared his love of music.  In 1995,  Newt Gingrich and his new hardliner majority shut down the federal government over the Christmas Holiday.  Of the 1200 employees of EPA Region 4, all but 12 were deemed “non-essential” and sent home.  John’s comment was  Hell Man!  They are the essential employees.  I’m not!  John pulled out the armadillo grill named “Armagrilla” to create some fellowship and recruited some EPA musicians to create a new band called The Non-essentials!  The band got national attention and raised morale across the beleaguered agency.  

John came back to Florida after leaving Atlanta and settled in an old Mellon house at Summer Haven.  Many of us flocked to see him and scheme up our next project.  Eric Draper recruited him to the Audubon Florida board of directors where he was elected chair.  On one trip they walked over to a significant shore bird breeding site at Matanzas Inlet, and saw red-neck trucks driving through the least tern nesting grounds.  “Big John determined that Audubon would protect those tiny terns. Thanks to John, Audubon established a beach bird stewardship program in Northeast Florida.  The Fort Matanzas ocean beach was closed to vehicles and beach nesting birds are thriving."  

In 2010, John was called back into duty after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon.  John was put in charge of the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Task Force designed to figure out the massive clean-up required by the historic explosion and unprecedented oil spill.  His final public service was appointment by President Obama as Chair of the Sabine River Compact Commission to protect federal interests in this important waterway.

John was a giant of conservation.  He was honored by both Florida Audubon and Florida Wildlife Federation with lifetime conservation awards. The Environmental Law Section of the Florida Bar also recognized John with an award named for Bill Sadowski other awardees include Bob Graham, Buddy MacKay, and Lawton Chiles.

I reached out to a few folks for comment:

Commissioner Henry Dean said,  “Kindest soul I ever met”

Carol Browner said,  “John was the one of best conservationist, environmentalist I have ever known.  He just loved thinking about and doing whatever it took to advance the cause.  It was a honor to work with him — first in Florida and then at EPA and finally with President Obama.  He was the guy who would never say no to public service.  But for me the most important thing I can say — he was a friend.”  

Buddy MacKay called John a “force for good.”

Eric Draper said,  “He was a friend always available with wise counsel and mentorship."  

Richard Grosso said, “He stands as one of the most talented, smart, thoughtful, creative, and effective conservation heroes in our state’s history.”

The last time I saw John was in December just before his stroke.  I was teaching an environmental advocacy class and decided to bring to each class someone who I knew and respected as an effective advocate.  I saved John for last. He wowed them and then brought out his harmonica and wowed them some more. He felt it too.  On the way back to his car he asked what it would take to be able to teach.  It was the one thing he hadn’t done and thought it was a way to reach out to the next generation.  I told him we would figure out how to make it happen, but time ran out on us.

John’s mentors Buddy MacKay and Marjory Carr shared a vision of a restored Oklawaha.  John spent much of his life thinking about how to make that a reality.  From playing the blues harp at the Un-Dam the Dam Jam, to lobbying members of Congress, John always had a plan.  In several of my last chats with John he wanted to share his latest scheme for taking down the Rodman Dam.  We owe it to John and Marjory to continue the effort until the dam comes tumbling down and the Oklawaha can once again run free.  John Hankinson was a force of nature and we wants us to be as well. 


December 7, 2022, marks the 75th anniversary of Everglades National Park.  It’s a time to reflect on the role of so many individuals who worked to make It happen.  All these years later we can agree that Everglades is one of America’s great national parks.

At the turn of the 20th century, Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward called for draining the swamp to create the new “Empire of the Everglades.”  But not everyone was in agreement.  In 1906, Miami Herald founder and editor Frank Stoneman questioned Broward’s plan and continued his opposition for the duration of the governor’s term.  Not enough was known of the long term consequences to draining the vast wetlands of the glades. 

About the same time, Century Magazine ran a story entitled “The Everglades of Florida A Region of Mystery.”  It compared the Everglades to the other “wonderlands” such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Niagra Falls. 

In 1914, former Florida first lady, May Mann Jennings was elected president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs and called for the protection of Royal Palm Hammock.  Later that year the governor and cabinet approved plan and the following year the legislature established Royal Palm Hammock as Florida’s first state park.

In 1917, noted botanist David Fairchild called for the designation of Everglades as a national monument.

Shortly after the establishment of the National Park Service, its first director Stephen Mather commissioned a report on possible parks in the eastern US.  In 1923 their report concluded there should be an untouched portion of the Everglades established as a national park.

In 1925 landscape architect Ernest Coe moved to Miami and became fascinated with the plant-life in the Everglades.  He established the Tropical Everglades National Park Association to advocate for the establishment of a new national park.  In 1931 he urged the legislature to establish the Everglades National Park Commission to help facilitate the creation of the park.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president.  He spent several weeks in Florida Bay prior to inauguration and explored much of the Everglades coastline.  He engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to do a report  which called for the creation of the park.  In 1934 Congress authorized Everglades National Park but with the proviso that the State of Florida would have to fund purchase of private property in the area. 

After World War II, Senator Spessard Holland worked to reach agreement on a scaled back project boundary for the park.  He asked the governor to create a new Everglades Commission and urged appointment of Miami Herald editor John Pennekamp as chair.  Pennekamp proved very capable of influencing North Florida’s “pork chop gang” who controlled the legislature.  He literally won funding for Everglades National Park with a winning hand of poker with influential lawmakers at a retreat in the Ocala National Forest.   

In 1947 Marjory Stoneman Douglas published Everglades River of Grass which brought national attention to the glades.  That same year the National Park Service and Florida officials reached agreement on the boundaries for the park and the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs agreed to convey Royal Palm Hammock to the park service.

On December 7, 1947, President Harry Truman officially dedicated Everglades National Park with these words,

The benefits our Nation will derive from this dedication will outlast the youngest of us. They will increase with the passage of the years. Few actions could make a more lasting contribution to the enjoyment of the American people than the establishment of the Everglades National Park.

Happy 75th anniversary Everglades National Park.