When he was a boy, Nathaniel Reed's father would sometimes wake him and his brothers at dawn.
Gripping long-handled blades, the Reeds would walk their property in Greenwich, Connecticut, scything the bridle paths — an ancient form of mowing.
It's one of Reed's early memories of feeling deeply connected to the natural world.
“My father had a love affair with the woods," Reed, now 83, recalled during a recent interview at his home on Jupiter Island, the town in south Martin County his parents founded eight decades ago.
Those Connecticut fields were often thick with butterflies; so were the hammocks of Jupiter Island he roamed as a child.
"It was before DDT and before all the other insecticides that have really reduced the population of butterflies across the world," Reed said.
He would go on to play a key role in the federal government's banning of DDT in 1972. It's one bullet point on a long list of environmental accomplishments he recently documented in his new book, "Travels on the Green Highway: An Environmentalist's Journey."
Reed served two presidents (Nixon and Ford) and advised six Florida governors.
He helped craft some of the country's most important conservation laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Reed worked to save and expand Redwoods National Park in California and Big Cypress Preserve in Florida's Everglades.
Yet, for all the environmental gains he's had a hand in, Reed laments how much we've lost in recent years — particularly under Gov. Rick Scott's watch in Florida.
“It’s a changed world," he said, "no question about that.”
Advice for Trump
Reed arrived in Washington when he was in his 30s, as the country was in the midst of what he calls a "national awakening." It was 1971, the year after the first Earth Day and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Public consciousness about air and water pollution was elevated.
"Everybody forgets the incredible power of the millions of young people, old people, middle-aged people who turned out on Earth Day — who were dissatisfied with rivers that caught on fire, who were dissatisfied by the smokestacks, who were dissatisfied by the incredibly toxic chemicals that both the federal Naval and Air Forces bases were discharging ... and the chemical companies that were discharging untreated, deadly chemicals into waters of the United States," Reed said.
Congress and Reed's boss, President Richard Nixon, could not ignore public demands for better protection. As Nixon's assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks, Reed quickly learned Nixon was more political pragmatist than environmentalist.
Nixon told him: "I don't give a darn about environmental issues. I've got too many things on my plate — but what I want from you ... is the best environmental record, a better environmental record than Jack Kennedy had. And don't get me in too much trouble," Reed recalled.
Reed played to those instincts. He crafted a DDT ban that would hold up in court. He worked to outlaw 1080, a poison used to kill coyotes across the West.
"The marvelous thing — the thing that will probably never happen again — is the Congress was so keen to get our input," Reed said.
The legislation he worked on gave the federal government powers of enforcement where it lacked them before. It's something Reed sees slipping today.
If he were advising President Donald Trump, he would offer this guidance:
"America does not want to go back to an era of dirty water and dirty air." To avoid that, he said, the federal government must have laws with teeth.
"Enforcement is a tool that must be in the presidential quiver," Reed said. "You have to enforce environmental laws, you have to — or they're negated, ignored.
Florida's rise and fall
In 1969, Reed became the first environmental adviser to any governor in the history of Florida. His appointment by Republican Claude Kirk was heralded by the Miami News as "Gov. Kirk's smartest move."
Working with state leaders, Reed cracked down on the practice of discharging raw sewage into Florida's waters.
Later, he would advise Governors Reubin Askew and Bob Graham, both Democrats. Reed praised them for their willingness to temper Florida's growth with commonsense environmental policies.
Reed believes no modern Florida governor has done more to erode environmental protections in Florida than Scott, who severely cut funding from the state's five water management districts — including the South Florida Water Management District, the state's lead agency in Everglades restoration.
"It's petty nonsense, and the Legislature allowed it to happen," said Reed, who supports plans for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that would store, treat and move water to the Everglades.
Florida once stood as a model for managing water needs to balance environmental and economic concerns.
"Now we're pathetic," Reed said.
He's hopeful, however, that Florida lawmakers will embrace Senate President Joe Negron's proposal to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area. If connected with cleansing marshes, it would alleviate harmful releases of Lake Okeechobee water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
"It's going to go down to the very last day of the Legislature," Reed predicted.
His political instincts still look shrewd. With about two weeks left in the legislative session, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is holding back on an endorsement of Negron's plan.
Reed will be 84 in July. Yet he's still calling out politicians for reneging on environmental protections Florida voters have demanded.
Asked if the country needs another environmental awakening, Reed does not hesitate:
His voice takes on a romantic lilt as he describes a large, new colony of wood storks in the Everglades.
"Magical," Reed said of the birds. "That's why I get out of bed."
His advice for this generation's aspiring crop of activists: Be knowledgeable. Be accurate."
And be excited about what can be done.
Treasure Cost Newspaper Sunday Edition April 23, 2017, Eve Samples , email@example.com Published 2:01 p.m. ET April 20, 2017 |Updated 5:25 p.m. ET April 20, 2017.
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