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Marjorie Harris Carr
The Alum Who Killed the Canal
Marjorie Harris Carr - The Alum Who Killed the Canal

If scholars can agree that Archie Carr is the man who saved sea turtles, they can find it equally plausible that Carr's wife is the woman who saved the future of Florida's environment. In his new biography of Archie, historian Fritz Davis emphasizes the remarkable, complementary role Marjorie Harris Carr played in her husband's campaign to raise public consciousness over an environmental issue.

Marjorie never shared the scientific limelight of her famous naturalist husband, but when it came to Florida politics, for nearly three decades her name rang far more bells in Tallahassee and Washington than Archie's ever did.

In the early 1960s, Marjorie became the icon of a grassroots backlash against one of the largest and most ill-conceived public works projects ever passed by Congress—the Cross—Florida Barge Canal. The backlash morphed into a popular, nonpartisan movement that signaled the arrival of Florida's environmental consciousness, a phenomenon that grew to inspire a national awareness about the mindless destruction of natural resources that ruled the day.

What many of Marjorie's most ardent admirers never knew is that her passion for saving Florida's natural heritage was every bit a natural part of her, and not some sympathetic expression of public service borne of a 50-year marriage to one of the most famous naturalists of the last century.

Like both her parents, Marjorie Harris was a born naturalist. A native of Boston, as a 3-year-old she relocated with her family to Bonita Springs, Florida, near Naples on the Gulf Coast, in 1918. With her parents as guides, Marjorie grew up exploring the area's wild wonders, and decided early on that she wanted to be a zoologist.

Her quest took her 300 miles north, to one of the Southeast's premiere liberal arts colleges—Florida State College for Women, the predecessor of Florida State University. At FSCW, Marjorie was heavily influenced by two botany professors, Herbert Stoddard and Herman Kurz. She graduated in 1936 with a B.S. in zoology, and soon became the first woman ever hired as a wildlife technician by the U.S. government. Marjorie signed on for one of FDR's New Deal projects based in Welaka, Florida, about 60 miles southeast of Gainesville.

When a covey of sick quail turned up at her field station, Marjorie boxed them up for a quick trip to Gainesville. She hoped to find some advice on how to treat the birds from specialists at the University of Florida's Department of Zoology. What she found was a handsome, 27-year-old doctoral student named Archie Fairly Carr, Jr., six years Marjorie's senior. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple was married in January 1937.

Had it been another era, after her marriage Marjorie's career might well have taken off on an academic odyssey every bit as rich and illustrious as her husband's. She possessed all the tools required for success as a biologist—a keen, inquisitive intellect, superior observation skills and a genuine fascination for nature and wildlife. In 1942, while pregnant with her first (of five) children, Marjorie earned a master's degree in zoology from her husband's department. Interestingly, even though she had a fondness for birds, her master's thesis, later published, was on the breeding habits of the largemouth black bass (Micropterus salmoides).

On the heels of the war, which had pinned her husband to campus doing his bit for the cause by teaching air cadets basic physics—a subject he despised—Marjorie got the thrill of her lifetime. She spent nearly four years in the mountains of Honduras with Archie, hired by a local agricultural school as a visiting scientist. Complimentary domestic help freed Marjorie to ride horseback through the cloudy highlands and study all the exotic flora and fauna on an equal scientific footing with the only man she ever loved. She subsequently produced a lengthy field survey of Honduran birds, the first of its kind.

Marjorie spent the Fifties essentially keeping her brood (a girl, Mimi, and four boys, Archie III, Steve, Tom and David) “out of dad's hair,” as she put it, while he poured his considerable energies into what eventually became a global campaign to save sea turtles from oblivion. But by 1960, Marjorie was finding time to reconnect with nature and her innate interests in saving it.

As a kid growing up in southwest Florida, Marjorie witnessed the results of humans' reckless disregard for wild things. In her later years, she wrote about the appalling condition of wildlife along the Imperial River near her home in Bonita Springs. Even in the 1920s, one could paddle the river's length and never see a living animal of any kind. Tourists hired guides to take them on river “hunts” where they would stand in the prow of a boat and shoot anything that moved, from alligators to red birds. The spectacle had made a deep impression on young Marjorie.

In 1960, Marjorie co-founded the local Alachua Audubon Society with one of her husband's colleagues and some conservation-minded friends. She quickly became a leader on a variety of local conservation efforts. When the University of Florida decided to drain Lake Alice, an 11—acre lake on campus, Marjorie and her group protested and got the idea killed. (For decades, the lake has been an iconic part of the university's landscape.)

But in 1962, Marjorie helped arrange an event that irrevocably changed her life and the course of Florida's economic and environmental future. Two representatives of federal and state agencies accepted the society's invitation to come give a talk about the probable environmental impact of a cross—Florida barge canal, a mammoth proposal gaining steam in Congress. The project was aimed at bisecting the state with a waterway to speed barge traffic between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

In later years, Marjorie recounted that fateful meeting:

“The audience had come to the meeting with a completely neutral attitude toward the canal (and) went away that evening disturbed, uneasy, and determined to find out more about the probable effects of the barge canal on the Florida environment.”

Nonetheless, the project moved forward. By 1970, nearly a third of the canal's proposed 110-mile length was finished, at a cost of some $70 million. From Inglis, Florida, on the Gulf Coast above Crystal River to Palatka, vast acreages of trees were destroyed, including thousands of cypress trees drowned by the new Rodman Dam that backed up 16 miles of the scenic Oklawaha River.

But also by 1970, Marjorie Carr was in high gear as well. She, along with Bill Partington of the Florida Audubon Society, had organized a diverse group of scientists, economists, lawyers and conservationists into the Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE). After linking her group with the Environmental Defense Fund, Carr soon vaulted into the spotlight as the face of public opposition to the canal.

The FDE's in-depth study—one of the first environmental impact studies ever done by a non-profit group—soon showed the canal to be a colossal hydrological, geological, ecological and economic blunder on a scale rivaling the state's earlier campaign to drain the Everglades (a bone-headed project squelched by yet another environmentalist visionary, Miami's Marjory Stoneman Douglas). In 1971, only nine years after two confident government officials had lit Marjorie Carr's fuse at what amounted to an obligatory garden club luncheon in Gainesville, President Richard Nixon signed an executive stop-work order locking the canal project's wheels. Politics prevented full deauthorization of the project by both Congress and the Florida Legislature until 1990. Ownership of all canal lands was turned over to the state of Florida, and a bill creating the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.

Marjorie's death (at 82) in October 1997 triggered responses from people all over the world and in status high and low. Among those closest to her, a common remembrance was her remarkable tenacity and courage in the face of immense political pressure. Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay lauded her as “a towering figure in the struggle to protect Florida's wilderness and wetlands—energetic, effective and fearless.”

David Gluckman, an environmental attorney who worked for Marjorie from 1968 until her death, told Research in Review that a key to Carr's effectiveness was her uncanny ability to work without anger. “No matter how important an issue was, Marjorie didn't need to get angry to get her way,” he said. “She used science, she used persuasion, and she used a pleasant personality—she rarely had to get mad at anybody.”

David Godfrey echoed Gluckman's observations. Now executive director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation—the nonprofit group spawned in the late 1950s by Marjorie's famous husband's fight to save sea turtles—Godfrey worked with Marjorie for the last decade of her life and became her close friend and confidant.

“Even when she was really upset over something, she was never angry,” he recalled. “She maintained decorum with great humor—and even though I never knew her husband, I know without any doubt that one of the greatest attributes they shared was their unbelievable sense of humor. Both of them loved life so much that in almost any situation they could find the humor in it.”

Godfrey believes Marjorie's greatest contribution transcends her reputation as the woman who killed the Cross—Florida Barge Canal.

“People talk about her defeating the barge canal as her greatest legacy, but I think the really lasting thing she did in Florida was she taught people all over the state to get involved in conservation. She trained an army.”