In Forces of Nature: A History of Land Conservation, Clay Henderson—an environmental lawyer and educator—details how many of Florida’s activists, artists, philanthropists, and politicians have worked to designate threatened land for use as parks, preserves, and other conservation areas. We asked Clay Henderson some questions about his new book, which we’re sharing below.
When did you first become interested in environmental advocacy? What motivated that interest?
I returned home to New Smyrna Beach after law school to see it in the grip of rampant development. I joined a small group of civic activists hoping to protect special areas and met people like Walter Boardman, Reid Hughes, and Doc Leeper who had succeeded in protecting vast conservation areas. Their passion inspired me to get more engaged and learn from their success.
What do you hope readers will take away from Forces of Nature?
Though Florida continues to grow at a record pace, the efforts of passionate individuals, professional conservation groups, and forward-thinking public officials have protected over ten million acres of conservation lands, more than any other state. Now about one third of Florida is part of a national, state, or local park, wildlife refuge, or forest. As Florida continues to grow we must keep pace with our conservation goals to protect our quality of life.
What natural area in Florida means the most to you? Why?
I spent two decades working to protect what is now called the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve. The 2500-acre site with a mosaic of wetlands, scrub, mangroves, maritime hammock, and pine flatwoods is a diverse ecosystem like no other place on earth. The site also contains both colonial era and Native American artifacts including an inspiring ceremonial mound that rises out of the lush hammock. It took so long to protect because it was a jigsaw puzzle of many ownerships with a great background story behind the purchase and protection of each.
What are your hopes for the future of Florida conservation?
Florida needs to conserve somewhere between 40-50% of its land area to protect wildlife diversity and water resources. There is sufficient funding available through Amendment 1, but the legislature needs to continue to appropriate at least $300 million per year to buy these lands to keep pace with the 100,000 acres of land we annually convert to development. It’s a race to protect the best of what’s left before it’s too late.
Why did you choose to center the actions of individuals in the story of land conservation in Florida?
Protection of Florida’s conservation lands came about through the efforts of dedicated and passionate individuals of vastly different education and expertise. It wasn’t so much ecologists or politicians as it was anglers, birdwatchers, artists, and writers. Their stories are inspiring and yet in many cases were never sufficiently documented. I hope readers will come away inspired to protect special places in their area of Florida.
What is one way readers can get involved in land conservation efforts?
The most direct way for people to get involved in land conservation is to join a national, state, or local environmental organization to learn about what’s going on in your area. There are now dozens of local conservation organizations and land trusts working in communities to save special places. They always need volunteers and funding.
What was your favorite part of working on this book?
I was fortunate to know several of the “old timers” who were present at the beginning of Florida’s environmental awakening. Some of them shared personal stories concerning the protection of some special areas. Most of these stories have never been told before.
What are you working on next?
I‘m currently researching and writing about John James Audubon in Florida. During his six-month expedition here in 1831-32, he identified and described over fifty species of birds, some new to our country at that time. His 30 paintings of beautiful Florida birds such as the American flamingo, great white heron, and tricolored heron are among his most famous and inspired the modern conservation movement.
For more information about Forces of Nature, click here.