GOP environmentalists today: As rare as a Florida panther

July 16, 2018 6:45 am
sunset picture

Sunset picture. Credit: Julie Hauserman

picture of Nat Reed
Nathaniel Reed

In Florida, Republican environmentalists used to be a thing.

And they didn’t get more prominent than Nathaniel Pryor Reed. The legendary conservationist from South Florida’s Jupiter Island died last week at the age of 84. Nat loved the woods and waters since boyhood. He spent his life trying to save wild Florida so that future generations could enjoy what he did – fishing, boating, and tooling around the outdoors.

He believed that the conservative thing to do was to, well, conserve.

I know he believed that because he was my friend and colleague since 1986, and I worked for the nonprofit group he co-founded, 1000 Friends of Florida, on the complex task of managing Florida’s growth.

Why the Florida GOP has turned its back on the great tradition of environmentalism in the Sunshine State is anyone’s guess.

Curt Kiser, a Republican who served twenty years in the Florida House and Senate (serving once as minority leader when the legislative chambers were controlled by Democrats,) was among those who worked alongside Reed and others trying to make sure Florida developers and industry didn’t get so greedy that they killed the goose that laid the tourism egg.

Kiser won awards from nearly all the state environmental organizations – and most of the time he was the first Republican they’d honored. Back when Kiser was first elected to represent Pinellas County in 1972, it was anything goes when it came to the government approving development and industry permits.

“I don’t know if the Republicans were anti-environment so much as they were pro-business,” Kiser says. “When environmental issues started to raise their heads, it was usually ‘Oh these people are in our way, all they do is slow down our project.’”

People like Reed and Kiser tried to argue some sense into their Republican colleagues.

“We said that regulations might add some costs, but we tried to explain why it was so important to do that. Pinellas was so overbuilt we were already having to go outside the county to get our drinking water,” Kiser said. “We had problems with sewage. People saw that the great fishing in the area was disappearing, the scallops were disappearing. The water used to be much clearer – I mean that’s why Clearwater got its name.

“People like Nat kept saying, you can’t keep ripping out all these mangrove trees and expect to keep the clean water. Developers would say, ‘Oh, it’ll settle out and the water will be clear again.’ Well here we are 50 years later and it’s not what it used to be at all.”

Nat Reed served in the Republican administrations of President Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He worked for Florida Gov. Claude Kirk and informally advised many successive governors. He had a hand in creating the federal Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. In Florida, he was front and center in so many battles – fighting the flawed plan to put a giant jetport in the Everglades, the scheme to cut Florida in two by digging a barge canal across it, the passage of the state’s conservation land-buying program and the bitter fight over creating the state’s Growth Management Act.

Today, there isn’t even a state land-planning agency anymore. And Republican environmental leadership – the idea that conserving natural resources is part of the public good – is about as rare as a Florida panther.

Nat Reed frequently invoked the notion of responsibility when he was taking state’s leaders to task. He came from a privileged background but chose public service. When he began working for Gov. Kirk as a so-called “dollar-a-year-man,” meaning he didn’t take a salary, it was routine for the state to automatically approve every application to destroy native ecosystems.

“Nat was the first guy to tell the governor, if you allow these mangroves to be ripped out and these seawalls to go in, and people put concrete and fertilizer and all that, that’s going to have an impact – are you ready for that?” Kiser says. “And one day at a Cabinet meeting, Kirk took a stand and said: ‘I’m no longer automatically signing these things. We need to have more information before we willy-nilly get rid of these mangroves.’”

It’s hard to imagine a bi-partisan coalition these days like the one that formed to pass the state’s Preservation 2000 conservation land-buying initiative under Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. Extremism, and the distrust it spawns, holds sway in the Governor’s Mansion, the White House, and the statehouse. Nat was firm in his convictions, but he was always a classy guy, cordial even to his wetland-draining adversaries like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“When people can’t be respectful of other’s positions, they can’t be serious about studying the issues,” Kiser says. “When they don’t have the facts on their side, they just speak louder.”

So many voices that were civil and impassioned are gone now, environmentalists like Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Marjorie Carr. Like Nat, these were polite but determined people who were prodigious thank you note writers. They won some and they lost some, but they kept on going because the task of preserving our common natural resources is so critical. Consider this my thank you note to them.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.