In the 1980s, as the country's environmental awareness and interests increased and the National Park Service implemented a uniform policy of total ecological preservation, Congressman Bennett capitalized on the opportunity to preserve invaluable wetlands in Jacksonville. Charlie had an inseparable love of history and nature. He developed a deep respect and appreciation for the two from a very young age. Bennett dedicated himself to this cause completely which is why he felt so deeply about national parks and environmental objectives. He described them as,
Great treasures of nature. Like the Yosemite, the wilderness areas of the west, or the cypress in Florida, those environmental treasures should be preserved. Also included in my interests were historical areas, which are often adjacent to environmental [areas]. Like here in Jacksonville…the Timuquan Preserve, which has historical sites in it….They are next to marshes, islands, and things like that. (University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program)
Without Charlie Bennett's unwavering dedication to preserving the history and ecology of Northeast Florida, these "great treasures of nature" would be spoiled.Bennett's longtime friend commented on his efforts,
Everything he undertook was with relentless care, integrity, courage, hope and old-fashioned determination. A straighter arrow might never be....[Bennett] taught us to value, respect and preserve the human events of the past and to cherish and exercise meaningful stewardship over the rare natural resources with which we've been so blessed by the hands of God in whom Charlie placed his trust. (Florida Times-Union, Sept. 10, 2003)
By the 1970s, Charlie Bennett envisioned a large national park in Northeast Florida that encompassed the National Park Service's two goals of ecological and historic preservation. Bennett's first initiative to establish such a park in Northeast Florida was the Florida Frontier Historic Riverway, which did not endure beyond the master plan and environmental impact statement. He ultimately aimed to protect the sensitive and vulnerable marshes and wetlands of Nassau and Duval counties, but his vision of a park extended into the interior to incorporate the existing Fort Caroline National Memorial and several other historic sites including the site of the Spanish mission, San Juan del Puerto;the site of the American Revolutionary War battle of Thomas Creek;the Zephaniah Kingsley plantation;and the Spanish American War fortification on St. John's Bluff. Adding to the star-studded historical significance of the area, a rich Timucua Native American history associated with the area that severed as a relevant tie to the story of the French and Fort Caroline. As with Fort Caroline National Memorial, establishing a national preserve in Northeast Florida proved to be no small feat.
In May 1985, Bennett introduced his bill to create the Nassau Valley Ecological Preserve. By this time, Bennett was in his 35th year as a veteran Congressman and established a reputation as Mr. Clean, but he faced severe and hostile opposition within the legislature and his home state after introducing this bill. Constituents were not opposed to historic preservation, but the real drama and controversy focused on environmental protection. This controversy is a classic example of the struggle between progress and preservation –while the marshlands are an integral part of the area's fragile ecosystem, federal preservation of the lands would prevent future development and harm parts of the local economy, such as woodland operations. Congressman Bennett's fellow legislators feared the local opposition to the proposed preserve and refused to support the legislation unless the tides turned to favor it.
In the next Congressional term on April 8, 1987, Congressman Bennett proposed the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The proposed preserve area in this bill only encompassed lands in Duval County and left out all controversial territory in Nassau County. The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve received Congressional approval and President Reagan signed it into law on February 16, 1988.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is unique in its dual preservation aims and remains the only one of its kind within the National Park System, highlighting both objectives of the National Park Service. Congressman Bennett fought hard to preserve these lands for the enjoyment of future generations, and residents and tourists of Northeast Florida should strive to protect them as well. Former Senator, Bob Graham (D-Fla.), remarked, "Among his outstanding accomplishments, the many, many acres of natural beauty in Northeast Florida which he helped preserve will be a living testimony to Charlie Bennett for generations to come." (Florida Times-Union, Sept. 7, 2003) Charlie Bennett described his hopes for the future as, "If the Timuquan Preserve ever becomes everything I dreamed of it being, it will protect a lot of these marginal types of marshes, rivers, and islands from exploitation by development. People, your children, grandchildren, and mine, will be able to see the world like it was, by the preservation of these areas." (University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program).