Former Florida state forester is remembered

John M. Bethea, Florida’s chief forester from 1970 until his retirement in 1987, was recognized for his contributions to forestry after his death this week.

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.”

1 thought on “Former Florida state forester is remembered”

  1. John Bethea was a good role model

    I met John Bethea in late 1973 when I began work as staff director of the
    Natural Resources in the Florida House, a post I held for five years. John
    was a very practical individual and knowledgeable about natural resource
    issues. I'm sure this was from his training in forestry, a science that
    seems to select for practical and field oriented people.

    I worked with John to create public use enhancements for the Blackwater
    Forest in the Panhandle and numerous other projects around the state. As the
    land purchase programs began he was one of the key individuals who provided
    information on management strategies for acquired lands. He was involved in
    the selection process for lands purchases in the early days of the CARL
    Program in the late 1970s.

    John and his crew from DOF including Billy Helm provided several great field
    experiences for state legislators. One I recall most vividly was the canoe
    trip down the Wacissa River to Cabbage Grove for about 150 folks including
    legislators, staff and other resource agency persons. The Natural Resources
    Committee sponsored the trip with John's help. When the canoes were pulled
    out at Cabbage Grove John was supervising the roasting of pork and
    preparation of the swamp cabbage salad. Many of the legislators had never
    seen that part of Florida nor had they eaten swamp cabbage salad.

    I learned a lot from John and I have mentioned his role as a manager of
    natural resources to many people over the years. He was a good mentor and I
    will remember him warmly.

    Tom Herbert

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