Nathaniel Reed, legendary environmental crusader, lives in an impeccably decorated home with the kind of precisely placed and curious treasures that would bring a sharp slap to the hand of a 3-year-old who tried to touch any of them.
But for this man who has devoted much of his life to nature — from preserving the wilderness of Alaska to negotiating the politics of Everglades restoration in Florida and Washington, D.C. — the value of those items seems to come not so much from monetary value as from the passion they still evoke in him.
Reed does not hesitate to grab a hand-carved wooden heron by its long neck and tell the story behind the artist and the wood. He also knows the stories behind the authentic Audubon bird prints in his foyer and dining room.
Same with a collection of rare shells, most of which he purchased from a woman who lived in a trailer in Hobe Sound — across the bridge from Reed’s home on Jupiter Island, a wealthy, private town whose 817 residents had a median income in 2012 that was more than twice that of the residents of the island town of Palm Beach.
There also are three large sea turtle shells on the wall, including a critically endangered hawksbill’s shell, given to him by a “dreadful” official in the Bahamas; fishing rods and reels in the hallway; awards galore; and photos of him, his wife of 50 years, his three children and five grandchildren.
“I would just say like Lou Gehrig, I am one of the luckiest men that has ever lived,” said Reed, 81, who will receive yet another award next Saturday, the Champion of the Everglades Award from the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation at its annual gala.
Reed has served two presidents and six Florida governors on environmental issues. He didn’t need a job when he accepted a position as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In fact, Reed probably never needed to work at all. He was born into wealthy family and grew up on Jupiter Island and a 128-acre wooded estate in Greenwich, Conn.
But he served in the Air Force, ran his family’s real estate business, sat on the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District and is now a member of the Everglades Foundation’s board of directors.
Last week in his home on the Indian River, Reed recounted the history not only of mementos in his home but of his old Florida family and the many powerful politicians he has known and served.
Reed was born on July 22, 1933 — a time when there was no air-conditioning in Florida. His father was Joseph Verner Reed, a writer, Broadway producer and diplomat, who used much of his oil and mining fortune to buy most of Jupiter Island in 1931.
At the time, the Hobe Sound Company, which owned much of the land, was in bankruptcy. Investors thought the land was worthless and Reed’s father bought the holdings for a very low price. There were only 30 houses on the island. Large windmills helped pump fresh water across the Indian River to the island.
As a child he made the daily trip with the family’s groundskeeper to check the windmills. While en route, they dropped a line from a cane rod into the lagoon. He said there was never a day when he did not catch at least four or five fish — sea trout, amber-jacks and, when the weather turned cold, blue fish.
When he was older, his parents allowed him to row across the river by himself. When he was 14, he spent three days traversing the Everglades in a canoe.
“My mother said I came out of womb with a fly rod in one hand and question in my mouth,” Reed said. “She said she never met a child with so many questions.”
His love of nature came naturally — from his father. At their Connecticut home, Reed’s father left the house at 6 a.m. four days a week for years to make a solitary mission into the woods, where he used a scythe to clear brush from the miles of horse trails on the family’s land. Although he was not to be disturbed, Reed said he disobeyed once, when Sir Lawrence Olivier called.
The elder Reed died at 71 in 1973, but not before giving Florida Audubon the northernmost portion of the island, which is now the island portion of the Hobe Sound National Wildlife refuge.
Reed graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. in 1955, then served in Air Force military intelligence in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. He met Arthur R. Marshall in 1960 and was impressed with his knowledge and maverick attitude.
“We met and our chemistry was fantastic,” Reed said. “He fought a lonely battle as the sole, really brilliant expert on the ecology of the state, and his warnings were unheeded.”
In 1967, Republican Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr. appointed Reed as his environmental counsel, the first such position in the nation. Early in his term, Kirk created a statewide environmental protection agency and killed a plan to build a barge canal across Florida.
“Kirk slashed away and he was hated,” Reed said. “His tactics were Napoleonic — forget any skillful effort, he was going to knock the door down.”
Nixon later invited Reed to become the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and National Parks, a position retained by Ford until 1977.
Reed recalled Nixon as a “strange, mysterious, introverted man, who could be absolutely cheerful or delightful or mean, ill-tempered and vindictive.
“(Nixon) said, ‘I don’t give a damn about the environment — I have other priorities,’” Reed recalled Nixon saying. “’I want a brilliant record, better than Kennedy’s and I don’t want to be bothered by you or anybody else.’”
Reed said he made two requests in taking the position under Nixon: that he be allowed to hire his own staff and that the president sign an executive order banning 1080, a poison used to kill coyotes in western states.
Nixon signed an executive order banning the use of poisons to control predators on federal lands.
“I said, Mr. President, I may come back with an executive order for DDT, too,” Reed said. In 1972, DDT was banned. Under that Republican administration, Reed also shepherded the Endangered Species Act through the Senate and the House and was instrumental in the passage of the Clean Water Act.
Reed peppers his recollections with names from the Watergate era. He calls John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s counsel convicted for his role in Watergate, his “secret godfather.” He says of Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff who was also convicted, “I couldn’t stand him. I avoided him like the plague.”
Reed went on to advise Gov. Reubin Askew, who Reed said “completely transformed Tallahassee.”
Gov. Bob Graham appointed him to the South Florida Water Management District governing board, where he served for 14 years and “fought like holy hell for what I believed in even though I lost many votes.”
He also was appointed to serve on the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council and was a founding member of the Everglades Foundation. Reed is currently working on a series of essays about his life and is still a player in the politics of Everglades restoration.
“My prayer of thanks is that I’ve been offered so many opportunities and the joy I have had in taking them on,” Reed said. “Lord keep giving me opportunities and life to take these opportunities to see if I can make meaningful change.”