Marjorie Harris Carr: A Champion of Florida’s Natural Resources

Long renowned for its natural beauty, Florida remains a popular destination for tourists and nature lovers seeking pristine beaches, lush forests, winding rivers and an abundance of flora and fauna.  Brought up in this environment, young Marjorie Harris (later Carr), was to become a relentless defender of Florida’s natural resources through her groundbreaking scientific research and activism. Carr is best known for her initiative to preserve Paynes Prairie and for her opposition to the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project.

Portrait of Marjorie Harris Carr.

Marjorie Harris was born in 1915 to Clara Louise (Haynes) Harris and Charles Ellesworth Harris in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved to Bonita Springs, Florida, in 1918, where they resided on a plot of land with an orange grove near the Imperial River. Raised by two naturalists, Harris gained an early appreciation and knowledge of Florida’s plant and animal life. In 1932, she entered the Florida State College for Women (FSCW; now Florida State University). During summer breaks, Harris worked for the National Youth Administration (a New Deal agency). She designed and implemented a naturalist education program for Lee County youth in exchange for financial assistance with tuition, room and board at FSCW.

View of the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, Welaka, Florida, 1960.

Though a passionate and excellent student, Harris would face many obstacles in the professional sphere due to gender bias against female scientists. Harris graduated from FSCW with a B.S. in zoology in 1936. Despite membership in various honor societies and the Florida Academy of Sciences, her applications to graduate programs in ornithology at both Cornell University and the University of South Carolina were rejected on the basis of her gender. Undeterred, Harris found work as a biologist at the Welaka Fish Hatchery, near the St. Johns River in North Central Florida, becoming the first female federal wildlife technician. It was in this position that she developed an intimate understanding of the ecosystems of the Ocklawaha River, a tributary of the St. Johns River that would become a main focus of her environmental activism decades later.

Scenic view of boat on the Ocklawaha River, Ocala, Florida, 1965.

Through her work at the hatchery, Harris met her future husband, herpetologist Archie Fairly Carr, Jr. During their courtship, the couple had some concern that marriage would destroy Harris’ professional career as a scientist. Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 enacted workforce reductions of married persons (typically wives)—undermining married women’s tenure in the workplace. After the pair married in 1937, she began a new position as a laboratory technician and field collector at the Bass Zoological Research Laboratory in Englewood, Florida—during which time she concealed her marriage in order to continue her work.

In the fall of 1937, Marjorie Harris Carr entered the graduate biology program at the then all-male University of Florida (UF). She graduated from UF in 1942 and published her master’s thesis, “The Breeding Habits, Embryology and Larval Development of the Large-Mouthed Black Bass of Florida,” in the Proceedings of the New England Zoology Club. In 1945, following the birth of their first two children, the Carr family moved to Honduras. While Archie Carr taught biology at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana, Marjorie took daily excursions into the rainforest to conduct research on local bird life.

During the years that the Carr family spent in Honduras, Marjorie Harris Carr  published several notable ornithological studies. Upon the Carr family’s return to Florida in 1949, Marjorie Carr entrenched herself in community involvement, volunteering as a girl scout leader in Gainesville, then joining the Board of Associates of the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF. While serving on the Board, Carr donated thousands of the specimen skins she had collected in Honduras, greatly enriching the museum’s tropical ornithology collection. Carr’s community involvement served as an entry point into conservation work—first as an officer and board member of the Gainesville Garden Club, and later as a co-founder of the Alachua County Chapter of the Florida Audubon Society in 1960. Within these civil societies, her scientific training and knowledge made her well-positioned to collaborate with University of Florida faculty and government officials on a variety of conservation projects.

View of water hyacinths at Paynes Prairie, Alachua County, Florida, 1970.

Sign for Paynes Prairie wildlife sanctuary, Alachua County, Florida, 1969.

In 1957, as her first major project with Gainesville Garden Club, Carr spearheaded the preservation of Paynes Prairie, a 20,000-acre prairie made famous through the writings of naturalist William Bartram in the late 1700s. As the land was being rented by private owners to cattle ranchers as grazing lands, and having been drained in the 1930s for development purposes, Carr perceived a need to protect the sensitive prairie ecosystem from further damage. Capitalizing on the Department of Transportation’s program to set aside roadsides as preserves, Carr and the Gainesville Garden Club set aside roadside of U.S. 441 through the prairie as a preserve. In 1970, the Florida Department of the Environment bought the rest of the Prairie, establishing it as Paynes Prairie State Preserve. Using Bartram’s writings as a guide, the State proceeded with restoration efforts to revive the prairie’s native species, including the reintroduction of bison to the area by 1975.

Buffalo gathered around a windmill at Paynes Prairie near Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida, 1976.

By far, the longest fought battle of Marjorie Harris Carr’s career was her campaign to stop the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. A project designed to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean through mainland Florida for barge traffic, the idea of such a canal had been proposed and rejected repeatedly throughout the years—in the 1930s, as part of an economic recovery program and again in 1942, as a national defense project. The project was finally granted funding in 1963 as a project under John F. Kennedy and was to be completed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Construction of the barge was planned along a section of the Ocklawaha River—near where Carr had cut her teeth as a biologist at the Welaka Fish Hatchery. Concerned about the potential environment impacts of the canal, Carr penned “The Ocklawaha Wilderness,” an essay published in a 1965 issue of Florida Naturalist, articulating the damage that the Canal would cause to the Ocklawaha ecosystem.

Forest debris from the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, 1969.

In 1969, Carr and members of the Alachua Audobon Society formed Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE). The organization, composed of hydrologists, geologists, economists, zoologists and activists wrote a scientific report entitled “The Environmental Impact of the Cross Florida Barge Canal With Special Emphasis on the Ocklawaha River System.” The environmental impact statement of the report was influential in the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970. The NEPA required all federal public works projects to evaluate potential environmental impacts before initiating such projects. Finding that the construction of the canal would threaten Florida’s water quality, FDE entered a suit with the Environmental Defense Fund against the Army Corps of Engineers, with the aim of ending construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. A federal judge issued an injunction halting construction on the project, and on January 19, 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a statement against the construction of the canal, citing potential serious environmental damage.

Governor Claude Kirk presenting award to Marjorie Carr for her environmental efforts as head of Florida Defenders of the Environment, 1970. Her husband, prominent herpetologist Archie Carr at right.

In 1976, Carr and her colleagues spoke before Governor Askew and his cabinet. Following two days of testimony, Askew and his cabinet voted to ask Congress to completely deauthorize the canal. The canal was not fully deauthorized until George H. W. Bush signed SB2740 into law, officiating the demise of the canal project and repurposing the lands comprising the canal’s route to conservation and recreation.

Governor Askew accepting jawbone during club meeting at the Silver Slipper restaurant in Tallahassee, 1971. The gift is for Lt. Governor Tom Adams as part of the S.T.A.B. movement (Send Tom A Bone) by a conservationist who reacted to Adams comment that stopping the Cross Florida Barge Canal was just “throwing a bone to the conservationists.”

Marjorie Harris Carr passed away in 1997 at the age of 82. A year after her death, the Cross Florida Greenway was renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. A 110-mile corridor encompassing lands formerly occupied by the Cross Florida Barge Canal project, the Greenway provides sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life, and offers a myriad of bicycle and hiking trails to Floridians. Carr’s 27-year battle against the Cross Florida Barge Canal project illustrates individuals’ power to safeguard natural beauty and maintain clean and balanced ecosystems. Through hard work and dedication, Paynes Prairies and the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway stand for future generations to enjoy not simply on Earth Day, but every day of the year.

For further information, interested persons can peruse The State Archives’ record groups on Cross Florida Barge Canal Project and contemporaneous efforts to preserve Florida’s public lands. Check out our research guide in the form of a three-part blog: If You Build It…; Where There’s a Will…; and Land, Land, Everywhere – But What to Do With It?

External Sources:

Bull, R. (January 19, 2001). Failed barge canal project leads to Cross Florida Greenway. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/011901/ent_barge.html#.WPk7FmnysuU

Florida Division of Recreation and Parks. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://www.floridastateparks.org/trail/Cross-Florida

Macdonald, M. F. (2010). “Our Lady of the Rivers”: Marjorie Harris Carr, science, gender, and environmental activism (Doctoral dissertation).

Marjorie Harris Carr. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2017, from http: //fladefenders.org/histroy/marjorie-harris-carr/

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