MAXWELL:  This time, the river and its fans win

8/5/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

The Timucaun Indians called it “Welaka,” or “River of Lakes.” We moderns call it the St. Johns River. To have lived near the St. Johns and played in it is to love it. My friends and I spent much of our childhood, during the 1950s and early 1960s, canoeing, kayaking and fishing the St. Johns, some of its many tributaries and several of the lakes into which it dumps.

As a native Floridian, I am thrilled that Congress has designated the St. Johns an American Heritage River. Only 13 other rivers nationwide were so designated, the St. Johns the only one in the Sunshine State.

The announcement brought back many memories, reminding me of the St. Johns’ primitive beauty. In Crescent City, where I spent many happy years as a boy, Lake Crescent was one of my playgrounds. A huge body of water by any standard, it is connected to the St. Johns by a tributary that winds through central Putnam County.

A few miles west of Crescent City lies the small town of Welaka. Here, we found the real thing, the St. Johns River itself, its blackish water reflecting the trees on its banks, bream and bass leaping in the sunlight.

At the main dock, my friends and I would launch our canoes and kayaks and paddle north _ “up the river,” as we called it. We learned from old-timers that the St. Johns is one of a few rivers in the country that flows north.

On a few stretches, the banks were as magnificent as they had been when John James Audubon described them in his 1834 Ornithological Biography. “Myriads of Cormorants covered the face of the waters, and over it Fish-Crows innumerable were already arriving from their distant roosts,” he wrote. “Now, amid the tall pines of the forest, the sun’s rays began to force their way, and as the dense mists dissolved in the atmosphere, the bright luminary at length shone forth.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, who owned a farm on the river, also immortalized the St. Johns’ beauty in her writing. Another notable, botanist William Bartram, thought that Welaka Springs was one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The St. Johns’ heritage designation is a personal and a political coup for Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, a certified river rat, who white-water rafts, hikes and camps along the 310-mile long river, the northern portion of which snakes through the heart of his city. Republican Delaney had to battle heavy-hitters in his own party, such as Cliff Stearns, Tillie Fowler and Dave Weldon, who tried to kill the proposal in Washington.

Their reasoning? The heritage designation would ban development on the river’s banks. State Rep. George Albright of Ocala and other Republicans in the pockets of developers threatened lawsuits and made fools of themselves during meetings. Ostensibly defending “property rights,” they called Environmental Protection Agency officials “Communists,” arguing that EPA chief Carol Browner wanted to hand the river over to the United Nations.

Florida Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage aptly summed up the tawdry truth: “Let’s be honest here. This isn’t about property rights. It’s about development rights, the health of the river be damned.”

The American Heritage River designation is more than symbolism. It means that the St. Johns will be eligible for federal preservation and cleanup funding. A “navigator,” a full-time federal employee, will work closely with towns along the river’s banks and assist officials applying for appropriate federal grants.

Delaney’s victory is one for all Floridians who care about the environment, but it is especially significant to residents along the river because its health will improve immediately. Already, the Jacksonville municipal government has allocated $260-million to clean up the heavily polluted basin. And “Operation River Rat,” a sting operation, has nabbed nearly three dozen people for dumping toxins into the St. Johns.

For lovers of the river, Steve Mihalovits, a Jacksonville Beach information systems specialist, has set up an excellent Web site on the St. Johns at http://www.stjohnsriver.org. I consulted the site for this column, and found it valuable. Mihalovits truly grasps the river’s meaning. “The St. Johns River,” he said, “is as important to North Florida as the Everglades are to South Florida.”

True. But my concern is this: Will our next governor _ Jeb Bush or Buddy MacKay _ support people like Delaney and Mihalovits and environmentalists who know the difference between property rights and development rights when our irreplaceable environmental treasures are at stake?