Nathaniel Reed, Florida environmental advocate and co-author of the Endangered Species Act, dies at 84

Environmental crusader Nathaniel "Nat" Reed died Wednesday in a Quebec hospital after falling during a fishing trip. He was 84. [Times (1998)]
Environmental crusader Nathaniel "Nat" Reed died Wednesday in a Quebec hospital after falling during a fishing trip. He was 84. [Times (1998)]
Published July 11, 2018

Nathaniel "Nat" Reed, 84, a Hobe Sound resident whose childhood ardor for Florida's natural wonders led to him becoming a tireless crusader for the environment, died in a Quebec hospital Wednesday, according to his family.

In a long career spent both in and out of government service, Mr. Reed co-wrote the Endangered Species Act, helped stop the construction of the world's largest airport in the Big Cypress Swamp, and later founded the group 1,000 Friends of Florida.

Mr. Reed's love of fishing was so deep and abiding that his mother joked he had emerged from the womb with a fly rod in his hand. Mr. Reed had often told his family, "It would be perfect if I could catch one last, perfect salmon before I go."

"He just about pulled it off," said his son, Adrian.

On July 3, Mr. Reed was fishing the Grand Cascapedia River in Canada, as he did every summer of his adult life. He caught a 16-pound salmon that put up a tremendous fight before Mr. Reed could at last land it. At last he reeled it in, then released it.

"That 16-pound fish lit him up," his son said. "He was so full of joy that he said, 'I'm going to go get another one." But as he climbed up the gravel riverbank, he fell and hit his head, suffering a massive trauma. Mr. Reed spent a week in a coma before at last dying, his son said.

The son of a New York theater producer, Mr. Reed grew up on Florida's Hobe Sound, just north of Jupiter on Florida's east coast. As a youngster he was dazzled by the natural beauty all around him, and began collecting butterflies and marking down all the kinds of birds he saw.

Mr. Reed stood 6 feet 5, and his beak-like nose and slender build made him resemble a wading bird in repose. In defending the environment, though, he could roar like a lion. While he was a staunch Republican long before that was a popular affiliation in Florida, he had also been radicalized by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring.

In 1966, Mr. Reed campaigned for Republican gubernatorial candidate Claude Kirk, accompanying him on barnstorming flights around the state in a DC-3. To the surprise of the state's Democratic establishment, Kirk won, becoming Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Mr. Reed became Kirk's dollar-a-year aide for environmental issues, a brand new position Kirk had created for reasons that were based more on personality than politics. Kirk told him: "If you want to change the things that you have been hollering about for the last 15 years in Florida, there's a desk."

"He had no interest in conservation," Mr. Reed said of Kirk years later, "but he had an interest in whoever was lowest guy on the totem pole, and at that time conservation was the lowest thing in anybody's mind in Florida. It was rape-and-run, avarice and greed. Make money now and do not worry about the future."

Kirk was a politician for whom the description "colorful" seems inadequate. Mr. Reed once got a late night call from his inebriated boss, who demanded he dispatch the National Guard with a howitzer to make sure a Panamanian tanker that was leaking oil couldn't sneak out of its quarantine at the Port of Tampa.

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Together, though, they took on, and angered, dredge-and-fill contractors, business-as-usual developers, and mayors whose cities were dumping sewage straight into bays and estuaries.

Their biggest success, though, was stopping the construction of the so-called "Everglades jetport," an event that kick-started the environmental movement in Florida.

In 1968, the Dade County Port Authority decided Miami needed a new airport. It acquired a 39-square-mile site just north of Everglades National Park and laid out plans for runways six miles long, where jets would be taking off every minute. Then, for easy access, the authority wanted a 1,000-foot-wide transportation corridor built from coast to coast across the state. The corridor would include a new interstate highway, a high-speed mass transit system, even a "recreational waterway" for airboats.

Mr. Reed helped convince Kirk to oppose the jetport, which would have devastated both the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp, then the last refuge of the Florida panther. Together they convinced then-President Nixon to stop federal funding for it.

In one confrontational meeting, the mayor of Miami blasted the aristocratic Mr. Reed as a "white militant."

Nixon liked Mr. Reed and appointed him a deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, a position he held into the Ford Administration. Mr. Reed said Nixon told him, "I don't give a damn about the environment — 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."

While working for Interior, Mr. Reed preserved more than 80 million acres of Alaska, publicized the dangers of DDT, and imposed a ban on the use of a coyote-killing poison called 10-80 that killed other animals as well.

While there, he gathered together a group of like-minded administration officials at a Chinese restaurant, and, amid the egg rolls and moo goo gai pan, they jotted down the wording for what would become the Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973 and signed by Nixon.

Among the animals protected by the act were several from Florida, including the panther, the manatee, Key deer and the American alligator. The alligator is considered one of the act's big success stories.

"We were in uncharted waters," Mr. Reed once said of their work for the new law. But he said they were all driven by a strong opposition to "ending a life that evolved on this earth, in some cases before we did, just to satisfy ourselves."

Later, Mr. Reed would found the advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Florida to push for better management of Florida's runaway growth and better planning to deal with its consequences. He was known for giving fiery speeches and writing equally fiery letters decrying the forces that he saw despoiling the state he loved so much.

His son said the driving force of his life was trying to "see the Everglades got a square deal from the state of Florida," but he often despaired that the effort was a losing one thanks to "the forces of evil that own and control the state of Florida." Nevertheless, the greeting he always called out to family and friends was a simple bit of two-word optimism: "Boundless love!"

In addition to his son, Adrian, Mr. Reed is survived by his wife of 54 years, Alita, two other children, Nathaniel Jr. and Lia, and five grandchildren.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.