Lloyd Miller, Who Helped Found Biscayne National Park, Dies At 100
As Biscayne Bay struggles with ongoing pollution that ignited a fish kill this month and continues to dirty water with algae-fueling nutrients, it lost one of its staunchest defenders over the weekend: Lloyd Miller.
Miller, 100, was part of a small, but fierce band of conservationists who helped found Biscayne National Park.
“He had his dog poisoned, his car vandalized. And ultimately, he and his friends prevailed,” said Gary Bremen, a ranger at the park and friend of Miller’s. “So we owe this incredible place to Lloyd. Lloyd [was] the last of that group.”
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In July, dozens of honking, festooned cars paraded by his Redland home at a party Bremen helped organize to celebrate Miller’s 100th birthday. As Miller and his wife Dottie sat in their golf cart, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava proclaimed the day "Lloyd Miller Day" and presented him with a county proclamation.
The national park may be his most obvious legacy, friends say, but his other accomplishments make up a long list.
“You have one park that was going to be an oil refinery and a low-key Miami Beach and another place in the middle of the Everglades that’s now a national preserve that was going to have a monorail and thousands of people. We have a preserve in North Key Largo. We’ve done Bill Baggs [state park]. It was going to be a stadium. And then Virginia Key,” said Bob Skinner, president of the Mangrove chapter of the Sir Izaak Walton League that Miller started. “These are all things that sprouted from Lloyd Miller and the people involved in the park.”
Miller could be cranky and irascible, said Don Finefrock, who served as executive director of the South Florida National Parks Foundation that Miller helped found from 2004 until last year. And that made him the perfect adversary to the powerful developers in the 1960s hoping to blast a 40-foot deep channel across the bay to make way for a chemical refinery and a new city, Islandia, with an overseas highway linking Key Biscayne to Key Largo.
“Under that crustiness was a really big hearted, very decent, caring individual,” Finefrock said.
The burgeoning environmental movement helped carry the cause, he said, but it was the small group of local organizers that included Karl Carman, Juanita Greene, Jim Redford, Hardy Matheson and vacuum cleaner scion Herbert Hoover Jr. who made sure the park got erected.
“I think their initial kitty was like twelve dollars and change. And there were only a dozen or so of them,” Finefrock said. “To think that they carried this fight forward and were able to reverse what looked a pretty much done deal. The county commission was all in on the oil refinery and petrochemical complex and they turned that around.”
Miller was born in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, according to a National Park Service biography, and followed his family to Fort Lauderdale after leaving the military in 1944. He took a job at Pan Am in middle management and pursued his passion for fishing. In 1959, after hearing about the Sir Izaak Walton League, the 100 year-old sportsmen’s group named for the 17th century author of The Complete Angler, Miller started a local Miami chapter.
Miller also met Dottie while working at Pan Am, Waters said. This year, they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
When plans started percolating to develop the islands in the bay, surrounded by lush seagrass covered flats that provided some of the best fishing grounds on the planet, Miller became a relentless foe.
“There were a number of folks who wanted to protect the bay for a variety of reasons, and they came from all walks of life,” Bremen said. “There were professors from the University of Miami who saw this as a laboratory. There was a fishing rod manufacturer, Karl Carman. There were a lot of folks who worked for the various airlines based in Miami — Eastern, Pan Am, National. And park rangers.”
The conservationists started to connect with each other as Greene reported on the projects in the Miami Herald, Bremen said.
“This was just a little group that formed on the back porch of somebody's house. And they pulled their money out of their pockets,” he said. “They went out and they printed up fact books and they would go door to door. They would go to the Rotary Club and the Lions Club and PTA meetings. Anybody that would listen to them.”
As the effort dragged over three years, the fight turned nasty.
“They were doing their best to derail it,” Miller said in a documentary made for the National Park Service. At “one point...they ran a bulldozer down the middle of Elliott Key, from one end to the other to see if they could destroy its value to the National Park Service. They did everything. They poisoned my dog. They tried to get me fired.”
Eventually the group captured the attention of Hoover and U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell. Hoover began flying lawmakers down to see the area and convince them of the need to protect the bay while Fascell shepherded the legislation needed to create first the national monument and then the expanded park. When President Lyndon B. Johnson eventually signed the initial act in 1968, Miller was looking over his shoulder.
The bulldozed path across Elliott Key is now a hiking trail named Spite Highway that offers a shady path across the island.
“It sounded like almost something out of a telenovela when Lloyd told those stories,” Finefrock said.
Over the years, as the bay continued to come under assault, Miller remained vigilant.
Bremen first met him in the 1990s, when former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Pinellas and local business interests pushed to convert the Homestead Air Base into a commercial airport. The change would have put the bay directly under a busy flight path.
The meeting had gotten bogged down in repetitive public speakers when Miller came to the podium, Bremen said.
“He started to speak and was just a commanding presence,” Bremen said. “He wasn't reading from something. He wasn't speaking from scientific reports or anything. He was speaking from the heart.”
Bremen chased after Miller to introduce himself, marking the beginning of a long friendship.
Just five years ago, when he was 95, Miller interrupted a congressional field hearing on new park management plans. The plan had come under fire from the local congressional delegation, which sided with the recreational boating industry in opposing rules to set up preserves. The preserves were aimed at reviving declining fish populations around reefs.
Chair Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and about three decades younger, scolded Miller for the disruption and said he’d better have a good reason for interrupting.
“Much of what we have heard today is exploitation,” Miller fumed, then reminded Bishop, the bay “belongs to all of us, not a few,” according to a hearing transcript.
The preserves were included in the plan, but so far have not been instituted by the state which shares fishery management with the park.
After retiring from Pan Am, the Millers settled in the Redland on a 10-acre grove where he and Dottie grew avocados and sugar apples. They also farmed acerola cherries on another 20-acre plot, starting a side hustle supplying the juice rich in Vitamin C overseas, said friend Mary Waters.
Over 50 years of marriage, Waters said the couple remained devoted to one another.
“Gosh, until two days, three days ago, they've been madly in love,” she said.
For Bremen, who became a ranger 34 years ago and came to Biscayne 25 years ago, Miller’s frequent visits provided a constant source of inspiration and proof that regular folks can accomplish great things.
“You go to California and other places in the West, you hear John Muir, John Muir, John Muir. You go up to Acadia or Shenandoah and you're constantly hearing about the Rockefellers. I think, wow, how cool would it be if those rangers could meet the guys that founded their parks and I realized that I do know the guy that made the park,” he said. “He’s a friend and it's a pretty extraordinary feeling to know the guy who did so much to protect this place.”