Nature up close: Who was Marjory Stoneman Douglas?

Everglades National Park.

CBS News

By "Sunday Morning" contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was not the first person to discover the Everglades. She was not even the first person to understand the importance or uniqueness of the Everglades. At five feet tall and 100 pounds she didn't appear to be a formidable champion of the Glades, especially considering she was born at a time (1890) when women didn't even have the right to vote, much less have their opinions taken seriously.

Conservationist and journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) was a passionate advocate for preserving the Florida Everglades. State Archives of Florida

But what she lacked in stature she made up for with her sharp wit and commanding voice. She is a testament to what one person can do when she believes in something strongly.

Marjory believed in the Everglades. She saw the glades not just as a stagnant swamp, but as a river of grass. She began writing about them in the 1940s, publishing her seminal work, "The Everglades, River of Grass," in 1947. She fought for them the rest of her life -- which was a long time, considering she died in 1998 at the age of 108!

She first began calling attention to the decline of the Florida Everglades when she was assigned to write about the Miami River. She considered traditional rivers mundane. She studied and wrote about the Everglades for five years until publishing "River of Grass." By then the southern 20% -- about 1.3 million acres -- had been protected as Everglades National Park.

But as the human population of southern Florida boomed and sugar cane farmers demanded more water for their expanding farms, the river of grass began disappearing, as more and more water was diverted from the glades. 

She clearly saw how essential the Everglades was for the organisms in southern Florida. Her activism and tenacity helped bring the ecosystem to the nation's attention.

The Everglades isn't a river in the traditional sense. Before humans intervened the water from Lake Okeechobee drained very slowly over about five million acres of flat marshland southwest into Florida Bay. By the time Douglas began writing about the Everglades, they were already shrinking due to water diversion projects for farming and development.

Left:  A snail kite (one of the first species put on the Endangered Species List) is only found in the Everglades. Right: A wood stork is considered an indicator species in the Everglades; if they are present, the Glades are healthy. Verne Lehmberg

The number of species that exist anywhere is dependent on whether the environment can provide food, water, protection, places to reproduce, etc. Therefore an acre of desert is not worth as much ecologically as an area of forestland. Marshlands rank very high on that scale; they may not look inviting to us, but they are some of the most productive environments on Earth. In other words, we lose more species diversity and biological productivity when we destroy an acre of marshland than when we destroy an acre of desert.

A common gallinule using its huge feet to walk across the marsh grasses. Verne Lehmberg

Marjory's gift to conservationism is that she knew the importance and uniqueness of the Everglades for almost 60 years, and fought for it right up until the time she died, and for that she will always be one of my Earth heroes.

While Marjorie Stoneman Douglas's name will forever be linked in the minds of conservationists with her effort to help save the Everglades and the animals and plants that live in that "river of grass," it is beyond sad that for most people, her namesake school in Parkland, Fla., will not be remembered for her, but as the site of a horrific mass shooting in which 17 people were killed.

Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.

Nature: Everglades National Park

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