Woodland Beach, DE -(Ammoland.com)- This morning, DNREC Deputy Secretary David Small joined a host of Division of Fish and Wildlife staff past and present and members of the local conservation community to dedicate the state’s Woodland Beach Wildlife Area to Anthony J. “Tony” Florio, longtime state wildlife professional, conservationist and Delaware artist.
Fittingly, Florio, his family, friends and fellow conservationists gathered in Florio’s former backyard at the Thomas Sutton House on the wildlife area to unveil the new sign bearing his name. During the ceremony, beneath the blue skies of a perfect summer day, tree swallows darted in and out of a nesting box, feeding their young in front of about 150 guests.
“Tony is one of those special people who has been able to interpret nature not only with the tools of scientific inquiry, but with his creative talents as an accomplished writer and artist,” said DNREC Deputy Secretary David Small. “We are lucky benefactors of his legacy of natural resource conservation and his insightful observations of our landscape, people and wildlife captured so wonderfully in his drawings and stories.”
“I fondly recall Tony’s knowledge and quiet, unassuming professionalism when I started as a fledgling biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife in 1980,” said Division of Fish and Wildlife Director David Saveikis. “He was an inspiration who helped me develop as a biologist and conservationist, and I am honored to share this special day with Tony and his family.”
Originally from Orange, Conn., Tony Florio was an undergraduate studying forestry at the University of Connecticut when he began working on a grouse census project with a Connecticut Wildlife Technician named Norman G. Wilder. In 1948, Wilder was chosen as director of the Delaware Board of Game and Fish Commissioners’ Conservation Division. His first hire was the newly-graduated Florio in January 1949.
In 1957, Wilder became the first director of Delaware’s fledgling fish and wildlife agency, today known as the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“Under Norman’s leadership, the mold was created that would produce the long-term shape of fish and wildlife management in Delaware,” Florio wrote in a 2011 Outdoor Delaware article celebrating the 100th anniversary of fish and wildlife conservation, recalling Wilder’s accomplishments during the 22 years they worked together. “His was a far-sighted vision, and spot-on, especially with regard to wetlands, the heart and soul of the magnificent Delaware estuary.”
In August 1954, Florio and his new wife, Patricia, settled into the Sutton House, located on the first tract of the Woodland Beach Wildlife Area east of Smyrna, which had been purchased in 1953. They would live in the 18th century brick house for 32 years and raise their three children in “splendiferous isolation” there, surrounded by scenic waters and marshland in the heart of Delaware’s Bayshore Region. Florio and his family became widely known in the fish and wildlife conservation community for their stewardship, which frequently included rehabilitating numerous species of juvenile and injured wildlife.
Florio began his fish and wildlife career as a wildlife technician doing fieldwork and mapping newly-acquired state wildlife lands and new ponds. He was especially involved in developing waterfowl and mosquito impoundments at Woodland Beach, Little Creek, Ted Harvey, and Assawoman wildlife areas, as well as many waterfowl ponds on public and private lands. As an artist, photographer and writer, Florio illustrated calendars and became a frequent contributor to the agency’s magazine, the Delaware Conservationist, first published in 1957 and continuing today as Outdoor Delaware. Florio finished his long career as Delaware’s Wildlife Section administrator with the Division of Fish and Wildlife, retiring in 1986.
During Florio’s 37 years of state service there were many milestones. In 1970, the Delaware Board of Game and Fish Commission became the Division of Fish and Wildlife as part of Governor Russell W. Peterson’s newly organized Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. In 1971, Governor Peterson’s landmark Coastal Zone Act passed into law and continues to protect the state’s coastal areas. Having gained support from federal and state funding, as well as private partners such as Delaware Wild Lands, wildlife lands statewide grew to encompass more than 60,000 acres, with public hunting and access areas, boat launches and fishing piers. And the foundations were laid for many of today’s programs that help conserve Delaware’s natural resources, from the Waterfowl and Trout Stamp programs to the highly successful project to restore the state’s wild turkey population.
As for the wildlife area that now carries Florio’s name, Woodland Beach Wildlife Area today has grown to 6,320 acres and includes three major tracts: the main tract, McKay Tract and Matarese Tract. Its amenities and attractions include a 60-acre waterfowl refuge; fishing and crabbing from the pier that extends from the town center of Woodland Beach on the Delaware Bay; a 1.5-mile nature trail; and the Aquatic Resources Education Center (AREC) for students and teachers, which includes three catch-and-release stocked fishing ponds and a 940-foot boardwalk interpretive trail over tidal marshlands behind the center.
Following his retirement, with the encouragement of June Sayers of the Smyrna Clayton Heritage Association, Florio wrote, illustrated and published “Progger: A Life on the Marsh,” a memoir of his Woodland Beach years that includes a slice of the area’s rich history. He and Pat now make their home part of the year in Vermont, and travel extensively. Their travels include frequent visits to Delaware, where they always make sure to travel along the Bayshore’s most scenic byway – Route 9, which was for so many years their road home, and which remains a pleasure and inspiration.
“The Delaware Estuary is second to none, and to know that the path forged by Norman Wilder is today being travelled with increasing vigilance gives me much satisfaction,” Florio said. “Certainly there have been and will be hiccups along the way – but my optimism for the future lies in my admiration and confidence in the new generation of conservationists, who will, in my firm belief, find the path that leads to both economic and environmental success.”
This project is part of DNREC’s Delaware Bayshore Initiative, a landscape approach to restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat, increase volunteer participation in habitat stewardship projects, enhance low-impact outdoor recreation and ecotourism opportunities, and promote associated environmentally compatible economic development.
About the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC)
The mission at DNREC is to protect and manage the state’s vital natural resources, protect public health and safety, provide quality outdoor recreation and to serve and educate the citizens of the First State about the wise use, conservation and enhancement of Delaware’s Environment.