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Epilogue: M.C. Davis ducked the limelight while saving as much nature as he could

Marion Clifton Davis was a major supporter of the Amendment 1 ballot initiative.
Marion Clifton Davis was a major supporter of the Amendment 1 ballot initiative.
Published Dec. 9, 2015

M.C. Davis was a gambler, a hard-nosed businessman, a guy determined to get his way — and a man who swooned over Florida nature.

His savvy and money saved thousands of acres of forests and swamps across the South, and preserved more than a few species. For the past two decades he did this without attracting attention, until this year, when he was written up in Smithsonian and profiled by National Public Radio.

Last week he was saluted by the state wildlife commission. He will be honored this month at a national conference where he will be awarded the National Private Lands Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Award. But Davis won't be there.

The man who spent much of his life avoiding the limelight killed himself this summer as he battled inoperable cancer.

"He's probably one of the most influential people you never heard of," said Julie Hauserman, a former Times reporter who worked for him as an environmental consultant for seven years.

Marion Clifton Davis grew up in bucolic Santa Rosa County. "I'm a dirt-road Panhandle guy," he told Smithsonian, which described him with a string of adjectives that included "jovial," "rumpled" and "forceful."

Bears, bats, turtles

Davis' father died when he was young. To support his mother and two half-sisters he began hustling pool, then graduated to backroom poker games. He put himself through college and law school with his winnings, said his son-in-law, Pat Chisholm.

He practiced law a bit, didn't like it, tried other things — trading in commodities like timber and oil and gas rights, buying up run-down companies and turning them around.

But his life had a hole in it. He'd made millions, married his high school sweetheart, a proper Southern lady named Stella, and they'd raised three daughters and sent them off into the world. Now what? What was the point?

Then one rainy evening about 20 years ago, he got stuck in a typical Tampa tieup on Interstate 4. He figured he'd pull off the highway and let the traffic clear. He spotted a marquee at a high school that advertised a lecture on bears. So he went.

Inside, he later recalled, was "an old drunk, a politician … and a couple of Canadians looking for day-old doughnuts and coffee." Up on stage were two women, Laurie MacDonald and Christine Small of Defenders of Wildlife, talking earnestly about Florida's black bears — then on the state's imperiled species list — and what it would take to save them.

Davis was surprised to learn Florida had bears. He stayed for the whole talk.

The next day he gave Defenders enough money to keep its bear campaign going for two years.

He'd found his calling.

He began meeting regularly with MacDonald, giving her fits, peppering her with questions, challenging her to prove she was right. His conversion from right-wing capitalist to a self-professed nature nut was not an easy one.

"He had the steepest learning curve I've ever seen," MacDonald, a St. Petersburg resident, recalled, laughing. "We would begin with little debates. They were a little testy but fascinating."

She gave him a reading list. He soaked up the writings of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and E.O. Wilson. He also started quietly buying up environmentally sensitive land — a lot of it in Florida, but also in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

He bought bat caves in three states to save their inhabitants. He bought 2-mile-long strips of land on either side of a Florida highway and built an underground crossing for freshwater turtles so they could get from one lake to another safely. He added thousands of acres to national forests and wildlife refuges, said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Plans grew bigger

Environmental groups might trumpet their plans to preserve land, only to see the price get jacked up. Not Davis. He'd sidle up, apparently just another good ol' boy timber buyer, and maneuver the seller into giving him a good price, not revealing his intentions until the deal was done.

"He was very good at staying quiet," Chisholm said. "He was always telling us, 'Don't tip your hand.' "

He worked behind the scenes to stop Florida's pay-to-pave program that let developers write a check in exchange for sealing up gopher tortoises in their burrows. He was a major supporter of the Amendment 1 ballot initiative, which set aside state money and a strong opponent of the wildlife commission's recent decision to allow a bear hunt for the first time in 21 years.

He would see a problem and then "throw more money at it than anybody else," recalled Vivienne Handy, another environmental consultant he befriended. "When he saw something that needed to happen, he went right out and made it happen."

His crowning achievement was the Nokuse Plantation, 53,000 acres of Panhandle peanut farms and pulpwood forests near Eglin Air Force Base that he bought and turned into a center for biological preservation. It's the largest block of privately owned conservation land east of the Mississippi.

He hired experts to begin bringing back the longleaf pine forests from pre-Civil War days, a key to making it ideal bear habitat, while creating a haven for gopher tortoises pushed out of other areas.

At Nokuse (pronounced no-GOO-see) he opened the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, named after the Pulitzer-winning biologist and naturalist who grew up in Alabama. The center was designed to educate Florida schoolchildren about the natural world.

Wilson became a major supporter of his work, and a friend. The two were laying plans to take Davis' work global, linking parks and preserves together around the world, when the bad news arrived.

His time, his way

Last fall Davis was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He tried chemotherapy and radiation to no avail. The cancer spread to his brain. He was fading fast. He didn't want to die in a hospital bed, Chisholm said.

On July 11, he slipped away from his family and made his way out to the Nokuse piney woods he loved so dearly. The man who always wanted to be in control had picked the place and the time of his death, and he carried out his plan, Chisholm said, declining to give further details.

Before he killed himself, Davis had set up a plan to keep Nokuse going. It will be run by a foundation, its board made up of his family.

If Davis were still around to hear all the accolades coming his way now, Handy said, "he would have pooh-poohed it all. He would say, 'Keep all this legacy crap — and leave my bears alone!' "

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.