Bethea was an early advocate of the urban forest concept and led innovations in Florida’s forest management, including the use of prescribed burning to improve forest ecology and wildlife habitat.
“Prescribed burning is front and center at the Division of Forestry . . . and John had a great deal to do with that,” said Earl Peterson, who was head of the Florida Division of Forestry from 1992 to 2003
He described Bethea as a “professional’s professional” who always wanted the best from himself and others. But he also was known for his downhome sayings, or “Bethea-isms” as his co-workers called them, such as “You got to dance with who you brung,” Peterson said.
Bethea was born near Cedar Creek north of Sanderson in Baker County and received a bachelor’s of science in forestry at the University of Florida in 1941, when he joined the Florida Forest and Park Service. After leaving to serve in World War II, he returned in 1946. He eventually won a Golden Smokey award for sustained forest leadership, was inducted into the American Foresters Hall of Fame and was a leader within the National Association of State Foresters.
“Our current state forests owe a great deal to John’s vision and leadership,” Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in a statement. “He was a man of great talent and energy whose entire professional career was spent developing and creating the forest system that millions of residents and visitors alike enjoy today on a daily basis.”
In 2001, the state acquired nearly 38,000 acres in northern Baker County and the Legislature honored him by naming it the John M. Bethea State Forest. Peterson said Bethea was unable to travel to the dedication for health reasons so he and Bronson filmed a video at the forest and held a dedication ceremony in Tallahassee.
“He was very very appreciative of the fact that the state, the Department (of Agriculture and Consumer Services), and the Division respected him enough — admired him enough — to do that for him,” Peterson said. “He was very honored by it.”