Under a sprinkling sunshower that blesses the scene like God's holy water, three pelicans decide to get airborne. With feathers tousling, they flap into the wind and rise out of Indian River, the intracoastal waterway that man and nature share in wary trust on Florida's east coast. At 30 feet the pelicans take an air draft. They hang-glide for 100 yards, drifting on wide wings above their three-acre mid-river island that is thick with mangroves but thicker with history.

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist who looked at life in true colors, was cruising south on Indian River. On seeing Pelican Island, he declared to all aides and waterbirds within earshot that it was to be set aside as a federal refuge. The threatened brown pelicans, once near extinction, have been protected since.

Roosevelt was a self-assured president who didn't run from problems by appointing a commission every time the stark obvious needed to be done. His executive order issued from the deck of the riverboat established Pelican Island as America's first national wildlife refuge.

Three acres wasn't that grand a beginning, but grandeur has followed. What Roosevelt started is now a priceless system that includes 410 refuges of 90 million acres in 49 states. They range from a vast 18-million-acre landmass in the Arctic of Alaska to the tiny spit of sand and wood here that is a nesting ground for about 800 pelicans and 22 other fowl such as woodstorks and roseate spoonbills.

The archetypal peace at Pelican Island is deceptive. This, and more than 200 other refuges, are as endangered as the endangered species they are meant to protect.

The threat here is not yet a major alarm. It is subtler. A year ago, when the island's manager retired after 17 years, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency under the Interior Department of James Watt, decided to save money and let the vacancy go unfilled. The caretaking is now done from a Fish and Wildlife office 60 miles up the coast.

The pelicans here, like the medieval ones depicted in stained glass at the cathedral of Chartres and in the coat of arms of Oxford's Corpus Christi college, are a hearty lot and will survive. The losses will be to others. The former manager, whom I met five years ago on my last visit, ran a program that brought every fifth-grader in the county for a trip around the island, plus a discussion after. That's been discontinued. The young will know that much less about the sacred wildlife.

Pelican Island remains paradisiacal compared with what is being done in other refuges by commercialists, marauders, gunners and the uncaring appointees of Watt. The National Audubon Society reported recently that "more than half the refuges are plagued by erosion, water problems, industrial and commercial development, air pollution, and wildlife disturbances of one sort or another. . . . Deteriorating facilities and inadequate program funding are taking a toll on seven of every ten refuges."

Under Watt, ever bullish on the bulldozer, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not attacked the refuges in overt ways. Instead, under the guise of reexamining the system to see what potential is present, the message has been sent to managers in the field: think multiple use.

At Pelican Island, one of these managers-- a biologist and an outdoorsman who was a true steward of the wild kingdom on Indian River-- explained that under Watt laws haven't been violated. That's not necessary, he said. A mere change in emphasis is enough. Where five years ago, this official's recommendations to his superiors to deny a real estate agent a permit to develop a wetland was enough to stop the project, now the recommendation is taken by the new higher-ups as just one man's opinion--and ignored.

Eighty years is a long time from Theodore Roosevelt. The gulf between Roosevelt and Watt is even larger. In 1903 Roosevelt listened to visionary naturalists like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. In 1980, Watt listened to Joseph Coors, the beer king. In 1903, after setting aside Yosemite Valley as a national park, Roosevelt said, "We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages." Watt, in 1981, declared: "I found that the programs that we deal with here were way out in left field."

At primeval Pelican Island, the politics of development seem remote. But the local reverence for three acres needs to become a national sensibility to protect the 90 million elsewhere.