Nathaniel Reed recalls the moment well. Early January 1970. He was sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with his boss, Gov. Claude Kirk, the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction. Also present were Interior Secretary Walter Hickel and Department of Transportation Secretary John Volpe.
As the governor's chief environmental advisor, Reed was waiting to meet President Nixon regarding the future of one of the most controversial endeavors in Florida's history: the building of a jetport in the middle of the Everglades in what was known as the Big Cypress swamp.
The fight over the jetport had been raging in South Florida for more than two years. Environmentalists in the state, led by Joe Browder and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, railed against the proposed facility, which already was under construction at the time of Reed's White House meeting. Bulldozers and construction crews had broken ground in October 1968 and had completed a two-mile-long runway, the first of several landing strips in what was envisioned to be the largest airport in the world.
The jetport, located 50 miles west of downtown Miami and just north of the Tamiami Trail, was to cover 39 square miles of marshland, making it four times larger than Miami International Airport. County officials predicted a takeoff or landing every 30 seconds. A high-speed rail line would link the airport to Miami. Led by Dade County Mayor Charles Hall, construction of the facility was promoted as essential to the area's economic well-being.
Governor Kirk was initially supportive of the plan, bowing to South Florida's politicians and business leaders. Reed, however, changed the governor's mind. As Reed remembers it, he received a call one day in 1969 from Bob Padrick, a Gulf Coast Chevrolet dealer who served on the South Florida Water Management District. "Bob called and told me that I had to see for myself what was happening in Big Cypress," Reed says.
So Reed arranged for a state plane to take him over the construction site. "I was absolutely dumbfounded by what I saw," he recalls. "Here in the middle of Big Cypress were bulldozers knocking down trees and tearing through the land. When I got back to Tallahassee, I told Governor Kirk that we'd been had. We were assured by Dade County the impact would be negligible. Clearly that was not the case.
"The governor said to me: Oh God, Reed, I've already come out in support of the jetport.' He said he had campaigned on a pledge of increasing business developments and creating new jobs, which this project was going to do. But I told him he had to do something." The governor finally agreed, temporarily halting construction so he could have a chance to examine it more closely.
Reed and Padrick may have been the first people with real power to raise concerns about the jetport, but they certainly weren't the first to object to it. "We started working to oppose it as soon as we heard that the county and developers were assembling real estate out there," says Joe Browder, who at the time was president of the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. "The campaign to stop the jetport started before there was any construction." One of those enlisted early in the fight was Miami attorney Dan Paul. "The Miami Herald said we were impeding the economic engine of the county," Paul recounts. "I was told that I should be dropped in the middle of the Everglades with a butterfly net."
In those early days of the fight, Browder brought together an unlikely coalition of activists, including hunters and Miccosukee Indians. (Browder's efforts were beautifully documented in the 1993 children's book, Save the Everglades, written by Judith Bauer Stamper.) Finally he called on the first lady of the Everglades, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The scene is recreated in Stamper's book:
"Finally, though, Joe put down his cup [of tea] and began to talk. He explained that he needed her help in the fight against the jetport. He brought up her book on the Everglades and how well known she was. He knew how much she loved the park. He said, If the jetport is built and the land is drained, the water for the Everglades will be polluted. Wildlife will disappear. You are more famous than anyone. People will respect you. They will listen to you.'