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The maverick of Hobe Sound

DIANE ROBERTS
Published May 30, 2004

HOBE SOUND - Nathaniel Pryor Reed is proud to be a Republican. Sort of.

He says, "I'm damned if the Republican National Committee will ever see a dime from me as long as it's in the hands of the Christian Right." He says the increasingly obese deficit "makes me sick to my stomach."

Reed worked for Presidents Nixon and Ford as assistant secretary of the interior but wasn't crazy about Ronald Reagan. He was downright contemptuous of Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, calling him an "extremist" who "can't tell the difference between national parks and industrial parks." And while Reed has been good friends with George Bush the elder, he doesn't think much of George Bush the younger or Vice President Dick Cheney: "While I was in the Ford administration," says Reed, "Cheney tried to block every good environmental policy, every decent piece of environmental legislation."

Reed will tell you why Al Gore lost the 2000 election, and it wasn't dangling chad or butterfly ballots or even the fell hand of Katherine Harris. Gore refused to stand firm against the conversion of Homestead Air Force Base, wrecked by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, into a civilian airport, which would severely compromise the Everglades ecosystem. This "cost him 17,000 votes," says Reed, pained. Now we're stuck with a president whose "lack of environmental interest is a heavy cross to bear."

Reed helped to jumpstart the GOP in 1960s Dixiecrat Florida, and has, arguably, fought harder for Florida's environment than any Democrat, yet state Republican Party officials seem reluctant to comment on him. "Someone will call you back on that," said the party office. No one did.

The environment is Nat Reed's issue - it has been for 40 years. The environment used to be the Republican Party's issue, too, which may explain how Reed, who comes from the progressive (and progressively shrinking) New England wing of the party, can remain a Republican even in the face of the Bush administration's weakening of clean water, clean air and public lands protections. It was, after all, Republican Theodore Roosevelt who established Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge. The Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act were signed by Republican presidents.

Many of what environmentalists say are Reed's greatest accomplishments - preserving Biscayne Bay and Big Cypress Swamp, and requiring the state to regulate pollution - began under a Republican governor.

That was then. Now Reed will battle anybody of any political persuasion who threatens what's left of Florida's wild creatures and wild places: "We simply do not have the moral or ethical right to destroy life that has evolved over millions of years," he says. "We are all fellow passengers on Planet Earth."

"He's an icon for environmentalists in Florida and one of the chief champions of Everglades restoration," says Charles Pattison, executive director of 1000 Friends of Florida, an organization dedicated to growth management Reed helped to found. David Guest, a prominent environmental lawyer who has worked with Reed on Everglades and Lake Okeechobee lawsuits, makes him sound a bit like a Green Superman, fighting for truth, justice and an uncompromised ecosystem: "At crucial moments in the great environmental battles in Florida, Nat Reed has suddenly appeared and struck the decisive blow."

* * *

Nat Reed's particular patch of Planet Earth is Jupiter Island, a dune-decked barrier island set between the Atlantic and one of Florida's great lagoons. The Indian River is literally in his back yard. Not far away is the place where, in 1696, a band of Quakers was shipwrecked. Since the advent of Ponce de Leon and Old World pathogens, native people in Florida preferred to minimize contact with Europeans. They took the Quakers' livestock. Took the Quakers' clothes, too, forcing them to cover their nakedness with torn out pages from the Bible.

Subsequent visitors have found the area a lot more pleasant. Reed's parents bought Jupiter Island in the early 1930s; now it's usually described with the adjective "exclusive," dotted with mansions pretending to be everything from Low Country plantation houses to Loire chateaux. Still, much of the island is wildlife refuge. When Nat and Alita Reed married four decades ago, they built a place which is by no means the largest or the poshest (in his bachelor days Reed lived on a houseboat); indeed, it's just slightly frayed in an elegant, old-money way. Their living room calls up images of a pre-land boom Florida, with a vaulted ceiling painted with palm fronds, chairs upholstered in a banana-leaf pattern, and the shells of several of the species of turtle that nest on the Jupiter Island beaches hanging on the wall. The voluptuous scent of gardenias (Reed grows several kinds) floats through the big screen door.

On one late spring afternoon, Reed has a lot on his mind. Phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee. Stresses on the Loxahatchee Basin. This year's presidential election (he says green issues will again be decisive in Florida). And his trip to the Bahamas for some bonefishing. "Bonefish are the most fun to catch," he says, "I don't fight tarpon any more."

Reed, now 70, looks like one of those long-legged wading birds you see in the Everglades: tall, spare, elegant. He's descended from Nathaniel Pryor, a member of the 1803 Lewis and Clark expedition. Reed's father was a successful New York theater producer. His mother ran the Hobe Sound Holding Co. Nat Reed could have spent his life fishing in the Bahamas. But his parents seemed to have instilled in him an old-fashioned sense of Yankee social responsibility: his Republican father voted twice for FDR because he feared the economic inequities of the Great Depression would lead to a revolution. The senior Reeds could have developed the hell out of Jupiter Island, turned it into Miami Beach North. But that's not the Reed way: "People move to Florida for the "quality of life,' then destroy the "quality of life' by overbuilding and overcrowding."

Though Nat Reed prepped in New England, and his family lived half the year in Greenwich, Conn., he says he's always felt like a Floridian. "I've waded every inch of the Indian River," he says. In 1966, Reed helped Claude Kirk get elected governor, the first Republican since Reconstruction. Kirk, a bumptious former insurance salesman, exhorted Reed to join his administration in the newly created post of environmental counsel: "If you want to change the things that you have been hollering about for the last 15 years in Florida, there's a desk."

Some old-time Democrats in the Cabinet, the Legislature and around the state wondered what Kirk was doing hiring this tree-hugging, butterfly-catching, bird-watching "conservationist" (the polite term for environmentalists back then); surely it was weird and un-American not to make a profit off the earth God gave mankind. But Reed, who had plenty of money of his own, was a bargain - his salary was $1 a year. One drain-it-and-pave-it type sniffed, "The governor got what he paid for."

As one of Claude Kirk's biographers put it: "Working to protect the environment in Florida was similar to being a firefighter in a city inhabited by large numbers of pyromaniacs." Still, Reed put out a big blaze started by developers even before Kirk officially took office.

There was this plan to create a series of dredge-and-fill islands in Biscayne Bay for a new "city" called "Islandia." At first, Kirk thought this was a fine idea. Progress. It so happened, however, that the governor-elect wanted to take his glamorous German fiancee Erika Mattfeld - who would soon be famous as "Madame X" when Kirk squired her to his inaugural ball and refused to reveal her name - on a discreet romantic sailing trip in the Keys. Reed insisted Kirk take a Marine Patrol officer with him for "security." Unbeknownst to Kirk, Reed had briefed the officer, a pal of his. When the sailboat ran aground near Key Largo, they broke out the beer, waiting for the tide to turn, while the officer extolled the uniqueness and beauty of the bay. Kirk decided Biscayne Bay would be much better as a national monument. "Islandia" was dead.

Undeterred, Dade County politicos and businessmen floated a proposal to build a jetport in the Everglades. The muck hit the fan. John D. MacDonald published a piece in Life magazine charging that the project would "kill what was left of the Everglades." In 1969, Reed got Kirk to demand a meeting with the Flood Control District to assess the environmental effect of the jetport. The Dade backers refused to answer any of the land use queries, repeating "The question is under study" over and over till Reed called a halt. The boondoggle was exposed. Dade Mayor Chuck Hall bitterly called Reed "a white militant."

"One of the important things about Mr. Reed is that he sees through the short-term promise of economic prosperity based on development," says Pattison. "It's like Christmas tree lights to a little kid - looks good for a bit but isn't of real value compared to long-term environmental preservation."

The Associated Press declared 1969 "the year Florida was saved," crediting Reed. He had, among other forward-looking environmental policies, instituted a radical regime requiring permits for dumping, dredging and filling. Previously, towns and industries disposed of sewage and various noxious run-offs into the nearest water source. Despite these accomplishments, Reed's boss Claude Kirk lost his job in 1970, beaten in the election by Reubin Askew.

Reed, on the other hand, kept his job and his independence, too. He was happy to work for a Democratic governor; equally happy to mix it up with Democratic lawmakers who thought environmentalism would get in the way of capitalism. Once Reed ripped his telephone out and threw it in the trash so he wouldn't have to talk to legendary legislative power-broker Dempsey Barron. "Dempsey was giving me orders on what industries were, in his opinion, exempt from the laws and rules governing air and water pollution," says Reed. "I told him he would have to come to my office and put his demands in writing. He called me a variety of names and threatened me so I pulled the phone off the wall so I would not have to be bothered by him."

In 1971, Reed found himself bothered by a whole new class of politico when Richard Nixon appointed him assistant secretary of the interior. Reed told Nixon he was going to hire the brightest staff in Washington. "I'll bet they'll all be Democrats," Nixon groused.

"I'm not going to ask them what party they belong to," said Reed.

Nixon had his little ethical difficulties later, but he gave Reed a chance to save more than 80-million acres of Alaska for the nation, publicize the dangers of DDT, and impose a ban on the use of 10-80, a coyote-killing poison that killed other animals as well. "There goes my western base," sighed Nixon.

In Washington, Reed was ridiculed for trying to save the San Francisco saltmarsh titmouse. He got death threats from good ole boys who didn't want their right to shoot eagles interfered with. Reed shrugged it all off: "The president appointed me to defend the critters that couldn't come to Capital Hill to defend themselves."

In the late '70s and early '80s, many political observers expected Nat Reed to run for office himself, maybe challenge Bob Graham for the Governor's Mansion, maybe try for Congress. He had the money, he had the connections, he certainly had the energy. But he didn't do it and doesn't seem to have any regrets. He went back to Florida to carry on being an environmental pain in the backside to the powers-that-be. David Guest tells the story of how, late in the 2000 session, the Republicans were going to pass legislation that would potentially give away hundreds of thousands of acres of the most environmentally sensitive public land in Florida. Frantic environmentalists called Nat Reed at 8 o'clock one night and hollered "help!" He chartered a jet, flew to Tallahassee the next day and held a press conference calling on Gov. Jeb Bush to "exercise leadership." A few hours later, the vote shifted and the measure died. "Nat Reed could wade into a nest of vipers and make them behave through sheer moral authority," Guest says.

Reed is still at it, evangelizing on how close Lake Okeechobee is to dying and how the Scripps Institute development is a "land scam." Scripps, which Jeb Bush hailed as a great job-creator and intellectual adornment for Florida, could have located in an already-developed area. Instead, he says, "a new city, 28,000 houses" will be built, damaging the Loxahatchee Watershed. It's all "part of the scheme to develop in the Everglades," says Reed. "We either get (environmental) concessions or we'll see them in court."

He could just retire, enjoy his five grandchildren, sit around smelling his gardenias. But he'd have to shut off his outrage, and that isn't going to happen. It's appropriate that there's a portrait of Seminole Chief Osceola hanging in his front hall. Osceola never surrendered. Reed says he won't either, almost shouting, "I will go to my grave saying "I refuse to give up.' " Then he smiles: "Let's go look at my hibiscus garden."

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