The efforts of two groups of conservationists, each pursuing separate goals, brought about the historic legislation that created the Bahamas National Trust in 1959.
Historically, the extensive mangrove wetlands of the Bahama Islands had been home to large flocks of West Indian Flamingos. In the 1700s, Mark Catesby produced the first illustrations of scarlet-coloured wading birds for his famous Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.
But by the early years of the 20th century, concern for the survival of the West Indian Flamingo was rising. In 1905, the National Audubon Society in the United States urged The Bahamas government to take action, which led to passage of the Wild Birds (Protection) Act.
In 1950, the Audubon Society sent its then Director of Research, Robert Porter Allen, to the island of Inagua to investigate what could be done to halt the flamingo’s slide to extinction. By then, the isolated back-waters of Lake Rosa on Inagua were home to the largest surviving group of West Indian Flamingos.
Allen devoted three years to this field study, and with Bahamians Arthur Vernay and Elgin Forsythe, he formed a Society for the Protection of Flamingos in 1951. Two brothers on Inagua – Samuel and James Nixon – were hired as wardens.
Then in 1958 events accelerated. A Columbia University grad student named Carleton Ray teamed up with the prestigious international explorer Ilia Tolstoy (a grandson of the 19th century Russian writer) to mount a new Bahamian expedition, this time in the Exuma Cays.
Allen and several other international conservationists (including Daniel Beard of the US National Parks Service, Donald Squires of the American Museum of Natural History, and John Randall of the University of Miami) were part of the expedition team, and their report led to the creation of the world’s first land and sea park in Exuma, as well as to the formation of the Bahamas National Trust itself.
In 1959 the government passed a law based on the British National Trust Act that established the BNT as a statutory organisation responsible for the conservation and preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty. The BNT assumed management of the newly created Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
After the passage of the BNT Act and during the formal leasing process of the Exuma park, which was finalized in 1963, these pioneer conservationists turned their attention to the flamingos, and the government designated the Inagua National Park in 1965, taking over the responsibilities of the Flamingo Protection Society.
In 1970, the Lucayan National Park was set aside by the Grand Bahama Port Authority at the urging of Peter Barratt, who was Freeport’s original town planner. The 40-acre tract includes almost every Bahamian ecosystem – from pine, coppice and mangrove forests, to rocky shores and dunes lining a spectacular beach – was leased to the Bahamas National Trust in 1982.
During the 1970s and 80s BNT membership grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand, and many critical conservation initiatives were launched. At the urging of the BNT, the government set aside new sites for protection, and at the close of the 20th century there were 12 national parks encompassing 315,000 acres.
In the early 1980s, Margaret Langlois and philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward donated an 11-acre property on Village Road to serve as the BNT’s headquarters. Margaret and her husband Arthur (a colonial civil servant) had acquired the property in 1925 and over time they had collected one of the best-known private collections of palms in the world.
Langlois’ records – dating from the late 1930’s until his death in 1977 – include all known palm genera. The collection was donated to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami by Margaret, who died in 1985.
In 2002 the Bahamian national park system doubled in size when 10 new sites were designated and the total area under protection jumped to more than 700,000 acres. Today there are 32 national parks protecting over two million acres around the country. And the BNT is possibly the only non-governmental agency in the world responsible for national park management.