Keeping Biscayne Bay safe for 40 years

HABITAT: Great egret makes its home in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.
HABITAT: Great egret makes its home in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

As the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, I reflect on my experiences with the bay over my lifetime.

Respected Miami News outdoors writer Marty Klinkenberg in 1980 asked me about my first experience with Biscayne Bay. I told him about two wonderful memories. The first was in 1954, when I was a student at Miami Military Academy in North Miami for summer camp.

The academy was located next to the popular Dolly Madison restaurant on U.S. 1, but I remember most that it fronted on the most beautiful bay of pristine salt water. I also recalled some six years later participating in the 1960 Gold Coast Marathon Boat Race in my 18-foot aluminum boat with a Scott-At-Water motor. The race started at Pelican Harbor in Biscayne Bay and ended in front of the Everglades Hotel in Palm Beach County.

Both experiences were lasting and carried over as an issue of concern when I was elected to the Florida Legislature from Miami-Dade County and served from 1974-82. My colleagues in the Dade Delegation, Reps. John Cyril Malloy, R-Miami, and Alan Becker, D-Miami, created the first state aquatic preserve in Biscayne Bay through the Legislature in 1972. Their work was visionary, especially since South Florida was often denied state funding for outdoor projects. The area was regarded as being maturely developed, with sufficient funding generated for outdoor projects by local governments.

Today, Florida has 41 aquatic preserves, encompassing more than 2.2 million acres of submerged land.

Since the 1974 Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Act did not carry funding, I vowed after my election to the House to work with the Dade Delegation and my legislative colleagues to fulfill the vision for Biscayne Bay. This included expanding the boundaries to quadruple the size; providing for the enforcement of rules and regulations; and funding for maintenance and enhancement; including parks and recreation facilities. In effect, following up the initial legislation of John and Alan, I pledged to treat Biscayne Bay as Miami’s Central Park, from the state’s viewpoint.

Subsequently, we expanded the boundaries down to Card Sound, abutting Monroe County. We worked closely with my hero in Congress, Rep. Dante Fascell, to coordinate amendments to the act to coincide with federal law, including the pristine island of Elliott Key. We went out of our way not to disturb Stiltsville off Key Biscayne. Sen. Paul Steinberg, D-Miami, and I coordinated this with officials of the then-recently named Bill Baggs State Park. We created a lobster sanctuary off Cutler Ridge out to Elliott Key, and funded the early stages of Jose Marti Park on the Miami River.

We worked with the Florida Cabinet to designate funds from the Florida Conservation and Recreational Act to purchase the valuable ITT parcel in Coral Gables, next to Chapman Field, since it fronted on Biscayne Bay. We also provided funding for the creation of artificial reefs just outside the boundaries of Biscayne Bay to encourage the growth of the fish population. Finally, we pushed the South Florida Water Management District to fund the linear parks along the water-management canals, leading to a connection with Biscayne Bay.

I tip my hat to wonderful Miami-Dade County government supporters of the activities and legislation, led by county managers Ray Goode and Merrett Stierheim and key staffer Tony Clemente. Govs. Reubin Askew and Bob Graham were wonderful partners in supporting the Biscayne Aquatic Preserve Act.

So much has been done to protect and enhance Biscayne Bay. But we must be diligent that this preservation continues for our grandchildren and beyond. This requires monitoring closely the enforcement of the Aquatic Preserve Act and personal efforts to maintain a clean and healthy bay.

I urge the 2015 Miami-Dade Delegation to continue the work that began 40 years ago with the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Act in order to complete the vision for Biscayne Bay, procuring continued funding and working with the community to ensure protection and enhancement.

Robert W. McKnight was a state senator and representative from Miami-Dade County from 1974-82.