The Passing Of Nathaniel Reed -- Heroic Champion Of Fish, Wildlife, and The Environment

By: Amos Eno
Posted on:08/06/2018

Nathaniel Pryor Reed died July 11, 2018, eleven days short of his 85th birthday. He leaves his wife of 54 years, Alita, two sons, Adrian and Nathaniel Jr., a daughter, Lia, and five grandchildren.

In his 2017 book Travels on the Green Highway -- An Environmentalist’s Journey, Reed quoted his mother as proclaiming that he came into the world “casting a fishing rod.”

He exited the same way.

Reed had just landed and released a bright, 16-pound Atlantic salmon from his beloved Grand Cascapedia River in Quebec when he fell and struck his head on rocks. He never regained consciousness.

Shortly before that trip he had said to a friend, “If I die, I hope it’s there.”Reed -- a lifelong Republican who proudly upheld the traditional values of his party (such as conserving) -- was arguably the most eloquent and effective advocate for fish, wildlife and nature of the 20th and 21st centuries.

When the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against him he stood tall, literally and figuratively. And more often than not he won. He worked for six Florida governors and two U.S. presidents, leading the charge on most every major environmental battle that came up.

He founded 1000 Friends of Florida (and served both as president and board chair). He also served on the boards of the Everglades Foundation (which he helped found), The Nature Conservancy, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, Yellowstone National Park, the National Geographic Society and the South Florida Water Management District.

Polluters and developers weren’t wrong when they called him a “zealot.” But what made Reed unique among zealots were his world-class people skills. He was adept at building alliances even with former adversaries. He understood when to take charge and when to delegate, when to speak and when to listen, when to demand action and when to be patient. He wrote long, eloquent letters and emails to most everyone he worked with or even against.

On his return to Florida from military service in 1960 Reed was appalled and outraged at the environmental destruction that confronted him. He promptly joined The Nature Conservancy, which had protected the Mianus River Gorge near the Reed family home in Greenwich, Connecticut. (In due course he would become vice chair of the Conservancy’s board and one of its most generous supporters.) And he joined every “Friends” group of every river, beach, lake and unique landscape.

In 1965 he met Florida gubernatorial candidate Claude Kirk Jr., a powerful ally who would provide him the political muscle to stop, or at least slow, much of the destruction of Florida’s fish and wildlife habitat.

For Kirk’s stance against what was widely viewed as “progress” the candidate was dismissed by pundits as a “fool” and maverick.

But, as Kirk’s most energetic and effective campaigner, Reed propelled him to a decisive win. In return Kirk hired him as his environmental advisor at the same yearly salary Reed would demand from all employers for the rest of his life -- $1 (because, as he accurately noted, no one he knew was less in need of money).

Kirk gave Reed broad responsibilities to acquire, restore and protect habitat, clean up industrial and municipal pollution, prevent wetlands drainage and take a stance against what Reed called Florida’s credo of “growth-at-any-cost” and “rape-and-run, avarice and greed.”

Among Reed’s more impressive Florida victories was stopping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from completing its 182-mile-long Cross-Florida Barge Canal, one of the most destructive boondoggles ever perpetrated on U.S. taxpayers. The project would have destroyed the entire length of the fish-and-wildlife-rich Ocklawaha River that collects water from a 2,800-square-mile sanctuary for vanishing plants and animals, many found nowhere else.

There would have been vast impoundments connected by excavated channels and accessed by five locks. The giant gutter would have run from Jacksonville south and upstream on the St. Johns River (to be dredged), overland to the Ocklawaha (to be dredged and impounded), to a point near Silver Springs (thereby destroying most of the Silver River), then overland again to the Withlacoochee River (to be channelized, dredged, and impounded), and on to Yankeetown and the Gulf of Mexico.

Kirk had endorsed the project until Reed sternly set him straight.

“What’s this canal that people are complaining about,” President Nixon inquired of Kirk in October 1970. “Are you building it?”

“No, you are,” Kirk replied.

Reed and his allies (including the National Audubon Society, which ran a piece in its magazine exposing the environmental costs of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal) ultimately convinced Nixon to kill the project, nearly a third of which had been completed. Some of the destruction persists in the festering, weed-choked deadwater impounded by Rodman Dam, the only dam in the nation without even an alleged function. But there is mounting pressure to remove it.

Reed played the key role in preventing the Dade County Port Authority from constructing a jetport with six-mile-long runways on 39-square miles of Everglades it had acquired just north of the National Park. The plan also included a 1,000-foot-wide transportation corridor from coast to coast, a high-speed mass-transit system, and a “recreational waterway” for airboats.

He enlisted The Nature Conservancy and other partners to purchase Lignumvitae Key and place it under state ownership, thereby saving this vital wildlife habitat and Florida’s finest bonefish flat. The previous owners had planned a causeway from U.S. 1 that would have unleashed an orgy of slap-dash development and required the dredging of Florida Bay.

Reed was instrumental in the creation of Big Cypress National Reserve, east of Naples.

Had it not been for Reed and the allies he stood with and inspired, Biscayne Bay would now look like Pompano Beach or worse. Instead it’s a national park, teeming with aquatic and terrestrial life including one of the world’s largest coral reefs and the East Coast’s longest stretch of mangrove forest.

Nixon liked Reed’s style and, especially, his stellar reputation in the Democrat-riddled environmental community. So he hired him as his Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and National Parks.

“I don’t give a damn about the environment,” Reed quoted Nixon as telling him. “I have other priorities. I want a brilliant record, better than Kennedy’s and I don’t want to be bothered by you or anybody else.”

“What’s this stuff I’ve been hearing about called DDT and what should we do about it?” Nixon continued.

“Mr. President,” Reed replied, “it’s a nasty biocide that’s killing our wildlife and maybe us. We need to ban it; and if you disagree, I’m not interested in the job.” Nixon told him to make it happen, and he did.

Nearly as insidious as DDT was a biocide called Compound 1080, used by ranchers to kill coyotes, bobcats and cougars but which also killed bald eagles, golden eagles, foxes, badgers, pet dogs and every feathered and furred creature that scavenged poisoned predators or even the poisoned scavengers.

It had been Compound 1080 that extirpated wolverines from the contiguous states. Reed got it banned; and wolverines began their recovery, ongoing to this day.

Reed helped permanently protect 80 million acres of Alaska.

Had it not been for Reed, America would be without the Marine Mammals Protection Act, the intact and expanded Redwoods National Park, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

In 1972, when word came down that powerful polluters had prevailed on Nixon to veto the Clean Water Act, Reed announced his resignation. But the president’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, told him that Congress would probably override the veto. Congress did; and Reed stayed on, continuing his environmental leadership under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

At our first and best loved national park, Yellowstone, Reed was dismayed to see grizzly bears feasting on garbage. The park had even erected grandstands at dumps for the public to view these obese, semi-domesticated caricatures of a magnificent, wild species.

Two biologists, John and Frank Craighead, had been studying Yellowstone grizzlies. Passionately and abusively they opposed Reed’s and park officials’ plan to wean the bears of garbage. Without garbage, they proclaimed, the bears would starve and, as they starved, they’d attack visitors. When Reed and the park presented scientific evidence to the contrary, the Craigheads took their fight to the sympathetic media.

The Craigheads’ constant and increasingly venomous criticisms had not been peer reviewed and were therefore in violation of federal rules. So Reed and his people eventually saw fit to revoke the Craigheads’ research permits and evict them from the park. Reed was savaged by the media.

Yet when the park closed the dumps and placed bear-proof lids on garbage cans there was no evidence of increased bear mortality or attacks. If any garbage-dependent bears quietly succumbed, they were swiftly replaced by wild bears from Yellowstone and the five surrounding national forests -- prime grizzly habitat that totaled about 12 million acres. 

What’s more, the park had documented loss of numerous bear cubs to male grizzlies when mothers were distracted by the dump smorgasbords.

Today Yellowstone is without garbage-eating circus bears. All grizzlies now function in a complex and complete ecosystem. And their recovery has been one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act.

No one ever heard the words “I told you so” from Nathaniel Reed. Despite the abuse heaped on him by the Craigheads, his response was to publicly salute them for “their innovative work that has led to incredible advances in radio telemetry and LANDSAT satellite imagery.” And in 1979, while serving on the board of the National Geographic Society, he recalled having “the pleasure of voting for the brothers to receive the Society’s coveted John Oliver La Gorce medals.”

After Reed’s federal service he returned to Florida, continuing his effective environmental activism, fighting tirelessly for fish, wildlife, the Everglades, clean air and clean water. Despite mounting health issues, he never slacked off.

In his preface to Travels on the Green Highway -- An Environmentalist’s Journey, Reed announced that he was “closing out” his life. His friends, allies and acolytes didn’t believe it. But he knew more than they did.

His legacy lives in the beautiful wild creatures and places that will brighten this planet and the lives of Americans and visitors to America living and yet unborn.

Here is what the environmental community is saying about the Nathaniel Pryor Reed and the gifts he has bestowed to the nation and world:

Mary Barley, former chair and current board member of the Everglades Foundation, chair of the Everglades Trust and vice chair of the National Parks Conservation Association: “We have lost a great American. Affectionately known as NPR, he was a man who embodied the best values of America. He fought as hard for critters as he did for people. He was my friend, my fishing partner on [Norway’s] Alta River, best story teller ever and an American original. I always wondered ‘why did all his travel diaries begin with Nat contracting and overcoming some diabolical illness.’ Ooooh I shall miss him sooo very much.”

Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy: “Nat Reed was a conservation giant, a patriot, and a true gentleman. Nat fought hard for what he believed in and never backed down from a tough fight, especially when the future of our environment was at stake. He lived a very full life, and he did so with grace and courage. He was a talented civic leader, and he graciously extended this leadership to The Nature Conservancy as an active member of the Board of Directors, Vice Chair, and generous supporter. Nat will be missed by all who knew him and all at TNC. I feel so fortunate to have known him. May you rest in peace, Nat.”

Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s Executive Director: “Reed was a giant of a conservationist, with his fingerprints on many of the most significant national conservation accomplishments of the last 60 years. Florida and our Everglades were fortunate to have his heart and his talents.”

Paul Jones, one of America’s most generous environmental philanthropists and a leading supporter of the Everglades Foundation: “Every moment with Nat was a teaching moment. He was hands down the wisest man I ever met.”

Dan Lufkin, Reed’s friend, ally and prominent environmentalist: “Nat Reed had the commitment, intelligence, and courage to lead in often times unpopular environmental positions. He did it from his governmental roles as Assistant Secretary of the US Department of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and in the South Florida Water Management District. And he did it every day for six decades as a private citizen. He was a man of extraordinary integrity and friendship.” (In 2017 the National Audubon Society awarded Reed its Dan Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership “for his lifelong commitment to conservation and role in protecting America’s Everglades.”)

Amos Eno, Executive Director of the Land Conservation Assistance Network, Reed’s close friend, longtime speech writer and his special assistant at Interior from 1973 to 1976: “A distillation of NPR and his legacy is that he was the epitome and personification of Republican leadership on environmental issues and he carried that torch forward from the Nixon/Ford administrations through succeeding Republican administrations and dragged it into the 21st century.”

Bill Taylor, president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation: “Nat was a giant in conservation, and not just Atlantic salmon conservation, he was a leader in the preservation of our natural world. He was a deep thinker, strategist and fighter. He left a lasting legacy at the Atlantic Salmon Federation and his fingerprints are all over many of our most important salmon conservation victories.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), from the Senate floor, hailing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ support for the $1.6 billion reservoir project to treat polluted water before it enters the Everglades: “It saddens me so much to announce … the death of one of the nation’s true environmental champions. Nat and I have been so focused on advancing this new reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee... It would be a fitting tribute to name that project in Nat Reed’s honor.”

Doug Wheeler, Reed’s deputy at Interior from 1972 to 1977: “Nat Reed was an incorrigible conservationist, who, through sheer force of conviction and eloquence, helped lay the groundwork in the 1970s for the federal framework of conservation and environmental protection. President Nixon’s emphatic environmental messages of 1972 and 1973 bear Nat’s fingerprints, along with other Republican stalwarts like Russ Train, Bill Ruckelshaus and Bill Reilly. Reed-protected landscapes -- from Alaska and California to New York, Florida and North Carolina -- are the permanent legacy of this great American.”

Joe Negron, president of the Florida Senate: “Nat Reed was a resolute force of nature who devoted his life to protecting the environment of Florida and the United States. I will personally never forget his unwavering support for the Senate Bill 10 EAA Southern Reservoir and his lifelong commitment to Everglades restoration. Mr. Reed loved Jupiter Island, Hobe Sound and Martin County. His prominent standing in the modern history of Florida is secure and irreplaceable.”

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and former Florida governor: “Floridians for generations to come are indebted to Nathaniel Reed for protecting our beautiful environment and our Florida Everglades. We will honor his memory by recommitting ourselves to being good stewards of our environment.”

Novelist, humorist, environmentalist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen: “The Everglades has lost a great friend and champion. Nat Reed was literally a force of nature.”

Jock Conyngham, stream restorer, environmental activist and one of Reed’s many fishing buddies: “When Nat would come into camp and report that he had caught a salmon, which happened regularly, it wasn’t a ‘nice fish’ or a ‘terrific fish’ -- it was a ‘magical fish.’ He was the only angler I ever heard use that adjective. And he meant it. He invited me to go back with him decades later to look at some of the projects he had worked on at Interior, which I think speaks a great deal about his resource ethic and personal investment.”