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Florida at 50

Pat Harden


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Florida's 50th Anniversary: Meet Pat Harden

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By Judy Althaus

Sometimes it takes a crisis to shake up the status quo. More than 50 years ago, a gorgeous mangrove island in St. Lucie County – now known as Jack Island State Preserve – was threatened by development. A few local conservationists swam fast against the political tide to ensure it was preserved.

From that heady success, 12 individuals with $25 in the treasury formed what became the Florida Chapter of the Nature Conservancy in 1961.

A founding member, Fred Harden, introduced the woman now his wife to the fledgling chapter. Pat Harden has served on the board of trustees since 1973, when the chapter had no paid staff. Some say she’s done as much for conservation as any individual in Florida. Pat is clearly one reason why the chapter now celebrates 50 years of preserving nature, from Pensacola to the Keys.

Nature.org:

Was there a moment when you decided that protecting natural Florida was your mission?

Pat Harden:

There was never an epiphany, no. I’m a second-generation Floridian who grew up mostly out of doors and in the Florida woods. As I got older and more involved in conservation, I realized we indeed had a treasure here; it’s just not the one that Ponce de Leon was looking for.

Nature.org:

You’ve been called “the voice of reason” on the Conservancy’s board of trustees.

Pat Harden:

I have? HA! Sometimes I feel more like the rabble rouser. I have a long history with the board, longer than any current member. With Fred a founder, I sometimes act as historian. I feel strongly that preserving land and Conservancy activities that lead toward that end are very important.

Nature.org:

You’ve joined many conservation groups. Why have you put so much energy into the Conservancy?

Pat Harden:

The Conservancy’s method has been to buy land, or help others buy land, with the intent that it should remain natural in perpetuity – and they are very good at what they do. If you want to protect nature, this offers the best chance of success.

Nature.org:

What is your favorite Conservancy “save”?

Pat Harden:

Picking just one is hard. Maybe along the Apalachicola or Big Bend, or maybe I’d choose a smaller site like the Theodore Roosevelt tract at Jacksonville’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic National Preserve. I grew up along Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast, so I’m partial to properties there as well.
An important part of our protection work was sparking the creation of Preservation 2000, which evolved into Florida Forever. These programs have made some wonderful purchases throughout the state. Without Florida Forever, many of them would have been lost. Much of the work we’ve done may not be directly credited to the Conservancy, but we spearheaded the state and county land conservation initiatives with the funding mechanisms that made them possible.

Nature.org:

I’m told you’re both a scientist and a teacher.

Pat Harden:

Well, I received a degree in biology and then taught high school early on. I worked 26 years with Disney at Reedy Creek Improvement District, the home of Walt Disney World, and eventually became the manager of environmental affairs for Walt Disney World Co. I was one of the voices for conservation during their expansion.

Nature.org:

How were you able to merge your personal and professional life for so many years?

Pat Harden:

I was fortunate in that Disney believed in community service and offered the latitude to attend necessary meetings and things like that. Of course, my job there so often meshed with the outside world. I might work 50 hours a week on the job and then come home and put in another 10-20 volunteer hours.

Nature.org:

You were a force behind the Conservancy’s ownership and management of The Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Pat Harden:

Long ago, the board in Florida discussed if we would get into mitigation, when that was the coming thing. Disney was already considering the Walker Ranch as a mitigation site, but they were concerned that people might be suspicious if they kept ownership. I was one of the ones who suggested that they make arrangements with a conservation organization to manage the property – but not to sell mitigation credits, which we didn’t want to do. Disney chose the Conservancy and the ranch became our Disney Wilderness Preserve – the rest is history, as they say.

Nature.org:

What do we need to do now if Florida’s environment is to be sustained?

Pat Harden:

How do you wake up a short-sighted public? A magic pill might help people recognize what’s happening around them and help them see the future they want for their children. Do they want springs and rivers that are all dried up, with lakes too green and yucky to even fish in? Do they want clean air? Should Florida be paved from stem to stern?

It’s difficult to get people involved until some crisis is reached, but I’m not sure how many more crises Florida can handle. When I was young, Florida had less than two million people. It’s approaching 20 million now, and our politicians don’t appear to be there for environmental protection. Clean air and water are our future for quality of life. And, destroying what brings tourists to Florida would have wide economic impacts.

Nature.org:

What advice do you have for others, especially young people, who love nature?

Pat Harden:

Most organizations are so pleased to have you at their meetings – go and tell them you want to be involved. You don’t have to be a science major; you can just love a walk in the woods or fishing or bird watching. Find an organization that wants to conserve resources for those activities.

I got started in local conservation by attending birding trips and workshops. That’s how I met people and then got involved in other issues.

Nature.org:

Why has the Conservancy succeeded when other groups did not?

Pat Harden:

It’s because of the singular mission that connects people to places. The Conservancy has always been quiet and effective, behind the scenes. You can still go out on the street and ask people if they know the name and almost 100 percent will say “no”. We’ve never blown trumpets or thrown ourselves in front of bulldozers; we just work in a non-confrontational way to help land owners and politicians see the big picture.
Other organizations may have much louder advocacy, still polite but nose-to-nose. These different organizations complement each other. But first you have to protect the land and that’s where the Conservancy comes in – putting together big pieces of land that make sense for biodiversity.
Watch a video interview with Nature Conservancy of Florida Trustee Pat Harden.



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