Nathaniel Reed, icon of Everglades protection, dies at 84. He co-wrote the Endangered Species Act

Nat Reed, a prominent environmentalist, cast a line in the Indian River, accompanied by his family dog, Hobe, in this photo taken April 24, 1996. Reed, 84, died Wednesday.
Nat Reed, a prominent environmentalist, cast a line in the Indian River, accompanied by his family dog, Hobe, in this photo taken April 24, 1996. Reed, 84, died Wednesday. For the Miami Herald

Nathaniel Pryor Reed always had a passion for the underdog, and in his six decades of fiery activism, he found no better cause than Florida's environment.

The lanky outdoorsman was behind some of the most significant environmental movements in the state, as well as the nation: He co-wrote the Endangered Species Act, secured bipartisan support for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, played a role in halting construction of the world's biggest airport in Big Cypress Swamp and helped establish a national park in Biscayne Bay.

He founded 1,000 Friends of Florida in 1987 as a watchdog organization for the state's runaway growth, and throughout his life loudly campaigned for the preservation of his beloved Sunshine State.

"It's like ballroom dancing," Reed once told a Herald columnist about the unending battles for the environmental cause — "one step forward, two steps back."

Last week, Reed fell and hit his head while fishing in Canada, an annual tradition. He had just caught and released a 16-pound salmon, his son, Adrian, told the Tampa Bay Times. He spent a week in a coma before the family took him off life support.

He was 84.

Reed was old money, raised both on an exclusive island resort in Martin County his father used his oil fortune to buy in the 1930s and in suburban Connecticut. On Jupiter Island, he brushed shoulders with Roosevelts and Bushes, but even as a child he could always be found with a fishing pole in hand or raising butterflies. He used his wealth to take small planes across Florida, wherever there was an environmental battle to be fought.

His first brush with the South Florida Water Management Board was as a protester. He argued so stridently against the release of silty water into the St. Lucie River that he was tossed out of the meeting. He later served on the board for 14 years — at one point leading it.

He became a top foe of Florida's politically powerful sugar industry, advocating passionately for a penny-a-pound tax that triggered what was then the most expensive ballot battle in state history, with both sides spending millions on campaigns. Reed's support earned him an appearance in the El Nuevo Herald, on a full-page advertisement that featured his picture alongside Fidel Castro.

In Spanish, under Castro's photo, the caption read: "Fidel Castro stole the Cuban farms and destroyed the sugar industry of Cuba." Under Reed's photo: "Nat Reed wants to buy the farms of Florida and kill the sugar industry by taxing it." The measure ultimately failed.

Nathaniel Reed Headshot.jpg
Nathaniel Reed, a passionate environmentalist, died Wednesday. He was 84. Everglades Foundation

But Reed's "unparalleled passion" also earned him respect on both sides of the political aisle.

"His encouragement to do what is right and never give up has inspired generations of conservationists, including myself. What he gave to America’s Everglades is beyond measure," wrote Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. Reed previously served as vice chairman of the foundation.

"He would write these letters that were incredible," said James Murley, Miami-Dade County's Chief Resiliency Officer and the first executive director of 1,000 Friends of Florida. Murley remembered Reed's impassioned speeches, which he always typed up and carried around in a red leather portfolio. "He was something you just don't see anymore."

Reed was an important early champion of aggressive land buying in the public's name, which became the Florida Forever movement. "He said, 'If it's worth that much to the public, you have to be willing to buy it,' " Murley said.

Reed was the nation's first full-time environmental advisor, to Florida's Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, for $1 a year.

"If you want to change the things that you have been hollering about for the last 15 years in Florida, there’s a desk," Kirk told him, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Under Reed's advice, Kirk ended the practice of flushing untreated sewage into the Atlantic Ocean and decided to support turning Biscayne Bay into a national monument.

Kirk was swayed after a guided boating trip in the bay turned into hours on the sandbar with a wildlife officer, sipping beer and marveling at the bay's beauty. Back on land, Kirk became a supporter of the monument project and against "Islandia," a development that would have strung condos along the causeways .

Years later, Reed told the Herald he remembered the day Kirk returned and stormed into his office.

"He said, 'You loaded up the boat with a guy who was a proponent of the Biscayne monument.' I said, 'Yes, I did.' 'Thank God,' he said, 'There is going to be no Islandia!' "

Thanks to Reed, Kirk also dropped his support for what would have been the largest airport in the country, built on a 39-acre lot north of Everglades National Park. It would have ruined the Everglades and Big Cypress Park, and Kirk helped Reed talk President Richard Nixon into halting federal funding.

Somewhere in the jetport controvert, Nixon took a liking to Reed and appointed him assistant secretary of the Interior. In that role, Reed persuaded Nixon to stop paying for construction of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, a canal meant to cut across Florida's peninsula.

In Nixon's administration, and later under President Gerald Ford, Reed co-wrote the landmark Endangered Species Act, helped pass the Clean Water Acts, helped turn more than 80 million acres of Alaska into preserves and defended California's redwoods.

Reed also stayed on board for Florida's next five governors, where he helped impose boating speed limits to save the manatees. Former Florida Gov LeRoy Collins once described Reed as "one of our country's greatest conservationists."

"I have never known a citizen of our state who I feel deserves greater respect than Nat does. ... He is put together with solid blocks of virtue. He is deeply sensitive to what is right and good."