Nat Reed's Great Book About His Heroic Life

My Foreword to the new book of my dear friend and mentor Nat Reed -- “Travels Down the Green Highway” about his heroic life.  Buy it at:

If you love wildlife and nature, drop everything and read this grand book by an ageless, tireless hero -- one of the founding fathers of the environmental movement.

Nat Reed has either led the charge or been in the front lines of most every major environmental battle during my adult life. He’s older than I, but not by much. President Nixon appointed him Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and National Parks when Nat was in his thirties. At that time I was in my twenties and had just started writing about fish and wildlife for national publications. I regularly turned to Nat for information, inspiration and support. I turn to him still, most recently in 2016 for facts about the global crisis facing Atlantic salmon. The best source he sent was his acceptance speech as honoree at a dinner hosted by the Atlantic Salmon Federation, which he has long served as an active and vocal board member. His energy and commitment remain undiminished.

I felt special gratitude for Nat while recently wading the Snake River at Idaho’s 11,000-acre Harriman State Park, casting tiny dry flies to well-educated rainbow trout as the sipped Tricos in the broad, slow flow. Nat is called a “zealot,” usually by developers and chamber-of-commerce types he’s inconvenienced. While they don’t mean it as a compliment, they’re correct. What makes Nat unique among zealots, however, is his world-class people skills. He knows how to build alliances even with those he dislikes. He knows when to take charge and when to delegate, when to shout and when to listen, when to demand prompt action, and when to be patient. That’s why he was and is so effective. And that’s why, more than anyone else, Nat made Harriman State Park happen. America is in desperate need of zealots like Nat Reed.

In 1972, when word came down that powerful polluters had prevailed on President Nixon to veto the Clean Water Act, Nat announced his resignation. But another environmental hero of the Nixon administration saved the day, convincing him to stay on because it seemed that Congress would override the veto. That hunch proved correct. And that hero was none other than Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman -- Nixon’s chief of staff, as devoted to America’s fish and wildlife as he was to its president. Who knew? That’s just one of the many important facts I learned and you’ll learn from this book. Thanks Nat (and thanks John Ehrlichman) for helping push arguably the most important environmental law ever passed to the point that a veto override became possible.

Nixon had scant knowledge of or interest in fish, wildlife or the environment. But he saw advocacy for such as a means of stealing thunder from the loathsome Democrats. Nat instantly recognized the opportunity and made the most of it. The exemplary environmental record of the Nixon administration was largely Nat’s doing, and he carried on bravely and effectively during the administration of Gerald Ford despite having to deal with the president’s anti-environmental chief of staff, Dick Cheney.

“What’s this stuff I’ve been hearing about called DDT and what should we do about it?” Nixon asked Nat before appointing him.

“Mr. President,” Nat replied, “It is a nasty biocide that’s killing our wildlife and maybe us. We need to ban it; and if you disagree, I’m not interested in the job.” More than anyone else we can thank Nat Reed for the banning of DDT.

Nearly as insidious as DDT was a biocide called Compound 1080, used by ranchers to kill coyotes, bobcats and cougars but which also killed bald eagles, golden eagles, foxes, badgers, pet dogs and every feathered and furred creature that scavenged poisoned predators or even poisoned scavengers. It had been Compound 1080 that extirpated wolverines from the contiguous states. After Nat got it banned wolverines started their ongoing recovery. Thanks Nat!

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was converting wild rivers to straight, lifeless gutters Nat Reed led the successful fight to stop the practice. In this effort his most daunting challenge was stopping the partly completed Cross-Florida Barge Canal, one of the most destructive boondoggles ever perpetrated on U.S. taxpayers. As late as October 1970 Nixon was sufficiently clueless to ask Florida Governor Claude Kirk (for whom Nat then worked as environmental advisor) about “this canal” people, especially Kirk, had been complaining about. “Are you building it,” he inquired?

“No, you are,” answered the governor. Kirk had strongly advocated the canal until Nat convinced him to strongly oppose it.

Recently I canoed the Ocklawaha River, which the canal would have wiped out. Fed by clear springs, it is semi-tropical, canopied, ancient. It drains 2,800 square miles, much of it sanctuary for unique plants and animals rare or absent elsewhere. Around every bend Florida red-bellied cooters basked in the sun. Basking on higher ground were alligators. Ten feet down, largemouth bass, sunfish, Florida gar, bowfins, catfish, and golden shiners ghosted through and over waving eelgrass and coontail. Atlantic needlefish, iridescent green and silver, sliced the glassy surface. Snowy and great egrets stalked hummocks. Pileated woodpeckers and red-shouldered hawks laughed and shouted from dark woods. Flights of white ibises streamed overhead. All this and much, much more, including other equally wild and beautiful rivers and forests, would have been destroyed by the Cross-Florida Barge Canal had not Nixon, with a hard push from Nat Reed and his allies, killed the project with an executive order. Thanks Nat!

We should also thank Nat for his leadership in converting Yellowstone grizzlies from garbage-eating circus animals to real bears that now function in a complex and complete ecosystem. Their recovery has been one of the greatest success stories of the Endangered Species Act.

I thought of Nat when my wife, Donna, and I left a family reunion at Florida’s Pompano Beach. We couldn’t wait to extricate ourselves from the wasteland of asphalt, cement and high-rise hotels. When we finally saw our chance we fled to Biscayne Bay National Park where we spent a wonderful day casting flies to giant bonefish. Had it not been for Nat and the dedicated allies he stood with and inspired, Biscayne Bay would look like Pompano Beach or worse. Instead it teems with aquatic and terrestrial life including one of the world’s largest coral reefs and the East Coast’s longest stretch of mangrove forest. Thanks Nat!

Nat was instrumental in saving and expanding Redwood National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, in giving us the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, in saving the best of wild Alaska. Were I to detail all the gifts Nat Reed has bequeathed on Americans and generations of Americans yet unborn, I’d need a book longer than this one.

In his preface Nat claims to be “closing out” his life. Don’t believe it. He’s as engaged today as he ever was, fighting for the Everglades, snail kites, neotropical birds, Atlantic salmon and other imperiled creatures that brighten this tired old planet.

Centuries hence Nat and the rest of us won’t be around; but his life will remain one that can never be closed out.

--Ted Williams

Grafton, Mass.