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Robert Lee Fulton Sikes

The Sikes Act is as close to an “Organic Act” for the management of natural resources on military installations as we have. The influence of this singular piece of legislation upon the responsibilities and authorities of the biologists and natural resource professionals of the Department of Defense cannot be overstated. But just for whom was the Act named and what were his contributions to this effort? Who was Robert Sikes?

Robert Lee Fulton Sikes[1] was born in a small rural town in Georgia on June 3, 1906. He attended public schools and went on to the University of Georgia at Athens, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1927. He then transferred to the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he received a Master’s of Science in English in 1929. After college, he was soon the owner and publisher of the Valparaiso Star weekly newspaper and then a second weekly, the Okaloosa News Journal in Crestview, Florida, from 1933-1946. He built a house and established Crestview as his residence in 1935.

Concurrently, he began his political career in 1936, when he was elected to the Florida State Legislature for two terms. In 1940 he was elected as a Democrat, representing the First Congressional District in Northwest Florida, to the U.S. House of Representatives, for the first of two terms. He resigned on October 19, 1944 to enter the United States Army during World War II. He served in Europe for just three months. He then served in the Army Reserves, attaining the rank of Major General. He was re-elected to Congress just a month later and would be re-elected for 16 succeeding terms. (Essentially, he won 19 consecutive elections.) He did not run for re-election in 1978 and returned to his home in Crestview, Florida, where he lived until his death on September 28, 1994.

Bob Sikes was known as the He-Coon. The story goes that whenever someone saw a pack of raccoons together, that one of them had to be the pack leader, responsible for finding water, food, staking out territory and protecting the others. The pack leader was referred to as the He-Coon. It was at an early campaign rally that a constituent compared Sikes to an old He-Coon and the name stuck.

He was the third ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and was Chairman of the Military Construction Subcommittee. During his 38 year career, he transformed the Florida Panhandle into a military stronghold and worked to preserve its beaches for future generations. He is credited with establishing the climatic lab, guided missile testing facilities, and a federal prison at Eglin, AFB. In total, some 14 military bases were either created or expanded due to his position on the Military Construction Subcommittee. Additionally, he helped develop Tyndall AFB, Whiting Field, and Pensacola NAS. Another legislative achievement was the creation of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which included over 30 miles of coastline from Florida to Mississippi and over 139,000 acres.

The history of Congressman Sikes would not be considered all positive in today’s more progressive society. He was a segregationist, like most Southern politicians of his time. He also was one of the first Congressmen caught up in the post-Watergate era ethics reform laws. He failed to disclose his personal interests in a Pensacola NAS bank and in Fairchild Industries; an omission that would earn him a reprimand from the House of Representatives on a 381-3 vote for financial misconduct. Following the reprimand, he was re-elected to his seat in Congress with 78% of the vote of his district.

He was an avid hunter and sportsman whose home was filled with hunting trophies. His love of the outdoors and the military came together when he began to draft and pass legislation that would eventually carry his name. The first version of the Sikes Act was signed into law on September 15, 1960. The first reauthorization to carry his name came in 1964.

Just as in 2010, every piece of legislation that has a chance of becoming law in 1960 had to have a champion. Bob Sikes used his powerful position on the appropriations committee, in combination with his larger than life personality to push through the act that would, four years later, carry his name. Of course, Congressman Sikes would bristle at being considered an environmentalist. His interest in preserving the outdoors was a little simpler than today’s Sikes Act envisions. He loved to hunt and fish. He also knew that most soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines of the 1960s also loved to hunt and fish. His primary interest was in preserving the opportunity for hunting and fishing on military lands.

And just as Bob Sikes evolved through time, so has the Sikes Act. It has become the cornerstone of all that conservation managers on military installations do. It has grown to include not only all fish and wildlife recreational opportunities, but active management of all natural resources. It has changed from a simple authorization to prepare Cooperative Agreements and Wildlife Management Plans into a mandated requirement for Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans. In its own way, it has also influenced the management of cultural resources and other environmental resources on military installations. To a large extent, NMFWA and the professionals who belong would not exist had the Sikes Act not been passed. And, the Sikes Act may never have come into existence, if not for the dedication and hard work of Congressman Robert L. F. Sikes.

It is for this singular achievement that the National Military Fish and Wildlife Association is proud to induct Congressman Robert Lee Fulton Sikes as a member of the inaugural class into the NMFWA Hall of Fame.

[1] Persons interested in learning more about his life and times are invited to read the biography, He-Coon, the Bob Sikes Story. Pensacola, FL: Perdido Bay Press, 1984.

Robert Lee Fulton Sikes
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