Has there been a more dogged supporter of the Florida Everglades than environmentalist Joe Browder?
Many might point to the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas and, indeed, her 1947 masterwork, “The Everglades: River of Grass” defined the Everglades as a vital artery in South Florida’s survival.
But Browder, a former Miami TV reporter turned environmental activist who died Sept. 18 at 78 of cancer in Maryland, also played a pivotal role in protecting the Everglades.
According to University of Florida history professor Jack E. Davis’ 2009 biography, “An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century,” it was Browder who pushed Douglas into a public and political role as the state’s environmental conscience, or “Mother Everglades,” a profile she had never sought but came to enjoy under Browder’s indefatigable prodding.
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“She was not the one who turned the Everglades into a cause, and she did not seek to join that cause,” Davis wrote. “It had come to her, as she openly acknowledged. Before Browder arrived at her doorstep, the Everglades had been little more than a topic in her writing, at most the focal point, along with the sun's tropical white light, of the geographic region with which she was enamored.”
Browder, who founded the influential Friends of the Everglades group with Douglas and also was affiliated with Audubon and Friends of the Big Cypress National Preserve, was as tough as a ’Glades gator in fighting for his causes.
“He was a born battler, he was a bulldog, he could step on toes and did step on toes. He often annoyed some of his colleagues and he could be quite rude to his fellow man if he thought they didn’t get it or weren’t active enough in protecting everyone’s national park,” said Nat Reed, a longtime Everglades advocate himself who was an aide to former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk and later President Richard Nixon’s Interior secretary.
The pair worked together to convince Kirk to change his mind on several potential environmental disasters.
Browder was alongside President Lyndon Johnson when the president designated Biscayne Bay a national monument in October 1968.
That White House ceremony proved a major hurdle for two projects that would have forever altered the bay and Miami-Dade County had they been built: an oil port and refinery called Seadade that would have gouged a channel through the bay to a tanker complex near Homestead Air Force Base and Islandia, a proposed series of condos on a string of barrier islands connected by causeways that would have run across the bay.
Browder also successfully led the fight against an already commenced Miami International Airport jetport right in the middle of the Everglades with “incredible energy and determination,” Reed said. “This led to Nixon calling us all in to Washington and canceling the project altogether. The federal money ended. Joe Browder was one of the key men who served us all with great distinction.”
From 1977 to 1981, during the Jimmy Carter administration, Browder was an official with the U.S. Department of the Interior on energy, natural resources and environmental matters.
Browder — who in recent years had run the environmental consulting firm Dunlap & Browder, Inc. in Washington, D.C. — also played a key role in the creation of the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades.
“Many of the weekend warriors who adored their freedoms by driving their off-road vehicles in Big Cypress were not sure management by the National Park Service was in their best interest. There’d be rules, regulations. Joe had an enormous capacity to understand this group of people who lived to get away from urban South Florida every weekend. I can honestly say that the hunters and mobile drivers would have opposed the National Park Service becoming stewards of Big Cypress had it not been for Joe. Joe convinced them, and the Miccosukees and Seminoles, that this was the best deal that could happen,” Reed said.
There is reason for hope, even confidence, that urban South Florida and supporters of the Everglades will strengthen their common interests, and work for a restructuring of land use, operations and economic responsibilities in the water system that serves all South Florida. The will to do the right and necessary things is certainly here.
Joe Browder in a 1990 Miami Herald column.
Born in Amarillo, Texas, Browder moved to Miami with his first wife, Joan Browder, and their two sons, Ron and Monte. The two were married for 13 years.
“Joe was an avid birder, Audubon Field Guide at his side, as long as I knew him,” she said in an email. “He could find his way around anywhere in the wilderness but always headed off in the wrong direction on a city street. The boys and I use to trek through the cypress strands and ponds of the Big Cypress Swamp, dodging snakes and hoping against aggressive alligators, following in Joe's soggy footsteps.”
Author and Politico senior writer Michael Grunwald, in his book, “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise” praised Browder as a “dogged activist” who “won some amazing battles for the Everglades, Big Cypress, Biscayne Bay and the rest of the ecosystem.”
In a 1990 column for the Herald, Browder seemed encouraged by Florida’s progress. “Nowhere else in the United States has experienced both such extraordinary growth in population and development, and such an expansion of the protected landscape and strengthening of environmental regulations.”
In an email, Grunwald said, “The earth is in better shape than it would have been if he had never been on it.”
Browder is also survived by his wife Louise Dunlap.