Pelican Island Refuge celebrates local conservation hero

VERO BEACH — It took visionaries, gazing at swamp land 100 years ago, to imagine the creation of viable communities. But it took especially committed visionaries to understand and, even more importantly, convince others that overdevelopment of those wetlands would have a permanent negative impact on wildlife and the environment.

As a brilliant example of a conservation visionary, the late Joe Michael’s perseverance and determination put a halt to the dredging and filling of lagoon wetlands for development around Pelican Island and eventually led to the end of state-owned wetland sales in Florida. Vans drove a small gathering of family and invited guests to the dedication ceremony along what is generally strictly a walking trail.  Guests sat under a canopy of green as numerous butterflies flitted about; the quiet broken by an occasional screech from one of the many water birds enjoying the salt marsh.

It was fitting that the dedication of the Joe Michael Memorial Trail and Joe’s Overlook Wildlife Observation Deck took place on Endangered Species Day.  Just this May, researchers discovered the endangered Smalltooth sawfish at the refuge.

Pelican Island Refuge Manager Charlie Pelizza began the ceremony, likening Michael’s impact on the refuge to that of President Theodore Roosevelt, who enacted the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as our nation’s first, and to early advocate Paul Kroegel, its first Refuge Manager.

Former Pelican Island Refuge Manager Paul Tritaik, now with the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge flew in for the dedication and gave a brief historical overview of Michael’s efforts.

In 1959 when Michael became concerned with encroaching development, he rallied others and organized the Indian River Area Preservation League, the precursor to the Pelican Island Audubon Society.  Ruth Stanbridge conducted a survey of the biological importance of the area and Michael spearheaded an operation in Tallahassee to cancel the sale of the state owned land.

“It was the first time in Florida that land was protected,” said Tritaik.

Michael went on to establish the Town of Orchid to protect the land from overdevelopment, and then convinced fellow citrus grove owners to follow his lead by selling their century old groves to the refuge instead of to developers.

Pelican Island Audubon Society President Richard Baker said Michael deserved credit for bringing the community together in the quest to preserve the land.

“We need to carry on the torch.  Even with so many organizations looking after it, it is still in danger,” said Baker.  “We need to continue trying to stop the degradation of the lagoon.”

Michel’s son Gordon Michael said he thought his father would be very humbled by the recognition and added, “The impact we have on the planet can be profound.  There aren’t many places like this; we are lucky to have it.”

Joe Michael’s wife Anne joked that she was not usually at a loss for words, but did remark that the Michael family had lived in Orchid for 123 years and said briefly, “On behalf of Joe and our family, thank you so very much for this honor.”

Other speakers included Judy Avril of the Indian River Mosquito Control District, Kristen Beck, with the Sebastian Fishin’ Chics, Steve Massey of the Pelican Island Preservation Society, and Pam Gillespie from Congressman Bill Posey’s office.  All spoke passionately about the need to preserve, protect and maintain wildlife habitats.

After thanking the Michael family, Elizabeth Souheaver representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, noted, “He made the right investment in people and purpose.”

The 5,400 acre Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge is filled with birds, fish and other wildlife that owe their very existence to visionaries such as Joe Michael.  Michael passed away in 2007, but his legacy is a lasting one that will enrich the lives of many future generations. {igallery 202}

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