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Keeping Islandia isolated

A man with the familiar name of Herbert Hoover has been one of the prime movers in the fight to stop developers in Florida's upper keys

Within the past year the tide seems to have turned for conservationists. In recent months Californians succeeded in blocking construction of an oil refinery on Monterey Bay, and Long Islanders, sick of seeing rich wetlands gutted for fill, are on the verge of getting solid protection. Perhaps the most unusual manifestation of the turn in events is the effort in Florida to halt the development of Islandia, a chain of islands in the upper keys, and the subsequent despoliation of South Biscayne Bay.

This is a different fight in several ways. For one, the conservationists have something positive to offer. For another, contrary to so many past battles elsewhere, one of the heroes is an industrialist, and he has the good old capitalistic name of Herbert Hoover Jr. Hoover, no relation to the late President, was—until a recent heart attack—chairman of the board and president of The Hoover Company, the world's biggest manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and the second biggest of washing machines.

A yachtsman and fisherman by avocation, Capitalist Hoover has been seeking to have Islandia declared a national monument, a sort of junior national park, and allied with him are such normally disparate organizations as Teamsters Local 769, the Dade County Federation of Women's Clubs, the Southern Florida Motel and Hotel Owners Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, the Transport Workers Union of Florida, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Izaak Walton League. Thanks to the efforts of Hardy Matheson, a lawyer who campaigned for election on a conservation platform, the Metropolitan Dade County Council is all for making Islandia a national monument, and the National Park Service and the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation have issued, in response to a council request for a study, an interim report recommending that Islandia be set aside for "the use and enjoyment of this and future generations."

The Islandia chain is composed of 33 islands strung south from Miami Beach to Key Largo. They are separated from the mainland by South Biscayne Bay, which averages six miles wide and is 18 miles long. The bay is so clear that when there is no wind it is impossible to see the surface of the water, and boats look as though they were suspended in the air. The bay serves as a nursery and foraging ground for more than 250 species of fish, including mackerel, mullet, spotted weakfish, kingfish and bonefish.

The islands themselves are coral reefs, with lush stands of mangroves on the bay side. They are the northernmost coral reefs on the Atlantic coast, and the flora and fauna are not continental American but West Indian. Among the rare animals are the manatee and the American crocodile. Until the turn of the century a few of the islands were used for raising pineapples, cane and hogs, but the fields have gone to second growth and help form a unique tropical forest of such trees as Jamaica dogwood and Sargent palm. The islands can be reached only by boat, and there are only three permanent residents: a police chief, a bearded manager of an alcoholics' rest home that rarely has customers and Lancelot Jones, a Negro bonefish guide.

Islandia is part of Metropolitan Dade County, which includes such growing communities as Miami Beach, Miami and Coral Gables. Politically, the islands have been incorporated as the "city" of Islandia, and the nonresident mayor, Luther Brooks, is a white realtor who collects rents in Miami's Negro section. Brooks and a number of other (but by no means all) property owners on Islandia would like to turn the islands into another Miami Beach, and to accomplish this they propose to connect Islandia to the mainland with a solid-fill causeway running across the bay. The fill for the causeway would be gotten by dredging up the bay bottom, and the bay bottom also would be dredged to double the size of the islands, from 4,500 to 8,700 acres.

Hoover got interested two years ago, when there were rumblings about Islandia's development. He was out fishing with a friend, and the friend, pointing toward Islandia, casually remarked, "This won't be here much longer." Hoover, who has been visiting the area for 25 years, was upset. "Someone needed to make the public aware," he says, "and without knowing it, I got interested. Some of my friends were a little surprised. I'm even surprised myself. I got into it because so few people were doing anything. I was appalled to see the lethargy of many people who should have been involved."

Last year Hoover threw the resources of his company into the battle and unleashed what he calls the Hoover Task Force. Company executives surveyed the area, and PR men sent out a blizzard of bumper stickers (e.g., ISLANDIA'S FOR THE BIRDS—LET'S KEEP IT THAT WAY) and postcards to be mailed to Congressmen. Hoover brought down Assistant Interior Secretary Stanley Cain, a world-renowned ecologist, for a look at the islands and the bay and, moreover, pledged $100,000 to help acquire the land. "When Mr. Hoover made that pledge, things really got going," says Arthur Marshall, a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. "His part has been tremendous." Marshall, a lifelong Floridian who has seen much of the state's natural resources disappear as the result of dredge-and-fill operations, is one of a number of biologists who deplore the development of Islandia. For one thing, Marshall says, a causeway would seal off the bay from the ocean. The mangroves, which hold back silt from rainstorm runoff, would disappear. The productive turtle-grass flats in the bay—the source, among other things, for an active bait-shrimp fishery—would be thinned out or destroyed by siltation and turbidity. The coral communities, composed of animals very sensitive to siltation and turbidity, would suffer great damage. Furthermore, with the productivity of the bay diminished, fishing in the nearby Gulf Stream would undoubtedly suffer.

Dr. C. P. Idyll of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Miami has taken a pro-national-monument stand, warning that "bad ecological changes are to a great extent irreversible," and in Florida, where the annual value of sport and commercial fishing is equal to that of the citrus and cattle industries combined, a warning such as this is no longer taken lightly.

In line with this, the Hoover Task Force figured that Islandia and the bay are worth far more economically to Dade County as they are now than they would be if the islands were developed as a resort. "It would be foolishly contradictory to build up the Islandia area into another center to accommodate tourists when that construction would eliminate one of our greatest tourist attractions," Hoover says. If more hotels are needed, he says, they should be built in an area that can use development, such as southern Miami Beach, where vacant land is going to waste. Hoover also says Islandia should be set aside if only to meet local recreation needs. Dade County has a population of one million, and by 1985 it should reach two and a half million. But even now, according to the county's General Land Use Master Plan, there is a "serious shortage of park and recreation areas."

In his battle for Islandia, Hoover has spoken to Lady Bird Johnson, and last spring he used the company DC-3 to fly down seven important Congressmen for firsthand inspection. Congressman Dante Fascell of Miami has introduced a bill authorizing the purchase of Islandia as a national monument. He says that in all likelihood homeowners on the islands will still be able to live there, but development would be prohibited. Meanwhile, the developers appear to be stymied. Hardy Matheson and the Dade County Council have passed an ordinance blocking the type of causeway the developers had planned to build. Matheson, an Islandia property owner himself, has given one of his plots to the Tropical Audubon Society, and the bird watchers have filed suit contesting the incorporation of Islandia as a city. A judge has ruled that 15 of Islandia's 18 voters are ineligible because they actually do not live on the islands. The decision is being appealed.

The Islandia battle is not over, but one good push should see it won. "It's so important to fight for something like this," says Hoover. "Of course, I'm very much in favor of conservation, but I'm also interested as a capitalist. You've got to have recreational areas for the average man if the capitalist system is to have any meaning, a place where the average man, with his shorter workweek, can go with his family to boat and fish. The average man can't go to the Bahamas to fish on a day off, like I can. Saving a place like this is important for the capitalistic system."