Conservatives in the Everglades: Sun Belt Environmentalism and the Creation of Everglades National Park

By Wilhelm, Chris | The Journal of Southern History, November 2016 | Go to article overview

Conservatives in the Everglades: Sun Belt Environmentalism and the Creation of Everglades National Park


Wilhelm, Chris, The Journal of Southern History


AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II, SEVERAL SOUTHERN STATES SOUGHT to sustain the economic growth they had experienced during the war. Many focused on building up their manufacturing, high-tech, and resource extraction industries. At the same time, tourism was poised to become an industry in the postwar South, especially in coastal states that could take advantage of the South's climate, natural beauty, and undeveloped natural areas. These two economic forces seemed destined to clash: many of the South's heavy and extractive industries defiled the environment, while tourism was often dependent on pristine environments. (1)

The South's postwar economic development also entailed changes in the identity, or at least the public image, of the South. The region's racist past, its backward reputation, its past hostility to the values of middle-class capitalism, and its legacy of secession were not generally compatible with the desires of business investors. This conflict was even more pronounced in the case of tourism, an economic activity that relied on the public's perceptions of place. (2)

Although the region's wartime economic growth was subsidized by the federal government, the rise of the Sun Belt South was inextricably and perhaps ironically linked to the emergence of modern conservatism. (3) This political movement, devoted to tradition, the free market, and individual rights, was particularly attractive to many white southerners who confronted diverse economic, social, and cultural changes during and after World War II. In Florida, a third emergent force shaped the state's economic growth and political climate after the war: modern environmentalism. (4) Environmentalism and ecological ideas about nature, along with conservative ideas about individual property rights and the role of the state, proved to be central to the state's development. (5)

The creation of Everglades National Park (ENP) in 1947 was deeply influenced by both environmentalism and conservatism and illustrates the diversity of conservative attitudes in the South toward nature. (6) Florida politicians saw the park as a centerpiece of the postwar tourism industry. This industry was predicated on the state's natural values: its climate, its beauty, its beaches, and its diverse and exotic flora and fauna. The key political figure in the fight for the park was Spessard L. Holland, a titan of Florida politics who parlayed his successful gubernatorial term during World War II into a twenty-five-year career in the U.S. Senate. In many ways, Holland was a typical mid-twentieth-century southern politician: he was pro-business and pro-segregation, and he supported states' rights. Holland typically sought to limit the power of the federal government, yet he vigorously supported the creation of an enormous national park in his state.

Holland's enlightened utilitarianism toward the preservation of the Everglades was composed of three ideas. The first was that economic benefits could be extracted from the Everglades. Second, Holland understood that environmental ideas, specifically an appreciation of diverse and exotic flora and fauna, were becoming increasingly important to Americans. Holland thought that the creation of the ENP would reorient the state's economy around tourism and advertise Florida tourism more broadly. Finally, and perhaps most important, the park would aid in the transformation of Florida's identity. The creation of a wilderness park dedicated to protecting biology would signal that Florida was at the forefront of environmental and scientific thinking. The park would demonstrate that Florida was no longer a backwater state from a backward region tainted by the legacy of slavery and secession. Rather, Florida was a modern, scientific state, eager to cater to the desires of American tourists.

The belief that the ENP could facilitate the construction of a new identity for Florida was a crucial facet of Holland's Sun Belt environmentalism and illustrates the dynamic and forward-thinking aspects of southern identity after World War II. …

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