Few people loved the Florida everglades more than Nathaniel “Nat” Reed.
The late 84-year-old devoted his life to conserving an ecosystem he saw as under siege. He was a prolific environmental advocate in his work as a government aide, Everglades Foundation founder, National Geographic board member, and Endangered Species Act co-author, among his numerous other contributions to non-profit advocacy.
“It would be perfect if I could catch one last, perfect salmon before I go,” Reed's son Adrian tells the Tampa Bay Times of his father's last ruminations.
And it was, in fact, a fishing trip on which Reed sustained injuries that would lead to his death. On July 3, Reed was fishing on Canada's Grand Cascapedia River when he fell, causing head trauma. After a week in a coma, he died on July 11 in a Quebec hospital.
He spent much of his youth on Jupiter Island, an exclusive, up-scale Florida neighborhood, where he developed a love for the state's pristine ecosystems. He began his career working for his family's real estate business but would later devote his life to implementing public policy.
In 1966, a Republican named Claude Kirk ran for governor of Florida, and Reed was part of his campaign team. When Kirk won, a surprise for the then-blue state, Reed became a “dollar-a-year” environmental aide in the state administration.
During this time, Reed was largely responsible for shutting down what would have been a massive airport north of Everglades National Park. Working with Gov. Kirk, they lobbied then-President Richard Nixon to cut federal funding for the airport. Not only was it a win for the ecosystem, but it also preserved what was then the last wild home to the Florida panther.
“I think it was a sense of right and wrong,” Dan Burkhardt says of Reed's motivation to protect the Everglades. A conservationist himself, Burkhardt co-founded the conservation group Magnificent Missouri and wrote the book Florida Bay Forever, published in 2013, for which Reed supplied the afterword.
In person, Burkhardt says Reed was an “irresistible force.”
“Once he got to the podium to talk about the Everglades, you could not stop him,” he says. “He was able to talk in an almost lyrical way about the Everglades.”
Burkhardt says Reed also saw the Everglades as a microcosm for the environmental issues playing out on a national stage. Once in the real estate business himself, he saw human development as laying siege to the unique ecosystem that instilled his love of nature.
While working as the deputy secretary for the Department of the Interior, Reed co-authored the Endangered Species Act. The landmark legislation created a regulatory framework to protect species at risk of extinction. The act allowed the government to restrict major economic activities like trade and development.
Despite his successes, Reed was never content to stop fighting for the environment he loved.
In his afterward for Florida Bay Forever, he lamented the fertilizers, chemicals, and sewage polluting Florida's lakes and rivers and called for more government intervention.
“It can be accomplished by sound science and adequate annual funding,” he wrote.
Twenty million people live in Florida today, and they'll continue to grapple with environmental issues like climate change and rising sea levels. Those who knew Reed say the state has lost one of its most dedicated environmental advocates.
“He canoed and kayaked in it. He fished in it. He waded in it,” Burkhardt says of Reed's life in the Florida Everglades. “He lived in it.”