The Most Interesting Man in Florida
The story of Sticky Morrison and Tiger Creek Preserve.
Forget for a moment how he came by the nickname “Sticky.” How did a boy from suburban New York, with ambitions to become an artist, end up working for The Nature Conservancy for 30 years, creating and restoring Tiger Creek Preserve and six other wilderness preserves in Central Florida? Steve Morrison–naturalist, raconteur, beekeeper, fiddle player and, until last January, Conservation Manager for Lake Wales Ridge–has a tale to tell.
“I suppose you could say I was born into the nature business,” he said.
His father, Ken, was editor of Audubon magazine. When Morrison was six, the family moved from Mount Kisco, an hour north of New York City, to Babson Park near Lake Wales, Florida. His father took the director’s job at Bok Tower Gardens and his mother worked as a nature educator, rescuing injured animals and bringing them in to local classrooms.
“It was perfectly normal for me to come home,” he said, “to find an egret, screech owl, opossum or turtle in the bathtub.”
While working at Bok Tower Gardens, Ken read about Edward Bok’s dream to create a wilderness preserve, Texel Jungle, as a complement to the manicured gardens that surround the tower.
“Nothing ever came of it,” Morrison said, “but my dad was so intrigued he piled us into the family station wagon and set off in search of this mystical jungle.”
They found the place Bok had earmarked for conservation, an untracked subtropical wilderness cut through by Tiger Creek, a winding stream named, one theory has it, for the orange water that runs through white sand and dark shadows. Bowled over by the land’s beauty and biological value, the family bought a decrepit hunter’s cabin on 10 acres and adopted Bok’s dream.
After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in art, Morrison restored the family cabin and lived off the land, farming goats and honey. Backed by the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the wilderness preserve idea was steadily gaining ground, one land parcel at a time.
Tiger Creek is an important part of the Lake Wales Ridge, an outstanding example of “longleaf pine sandhill,” a forest system that had once extended from Virginia to Eastern Texas. It had exceptionally high incidence of endemism—unique species found only there—a legacy from the end of the Ice Age when all of Florida was submerged except for its spine. Morrison said this created a “Galapagos effect” as fauna retreated to the Ridge in the face of rising sea levels, forcing them to adapt to the new environment.
In 1987, when Tiger Creek Preserve was created, The Nature Conservancy asked Morrison to take on the job first as caretaker and then, as the preserve grew to 5,000 acres, as full-time manager.
“It was serendipity,” he said with trademark modesty. “I just happened to be living in a place with an extraordinarily rich biodiversity. The population of Florida was ballooning, and even the politicians saw that something had to be done to protect our wilderness areas.”
He said he knew Tiger Creek was valuable, but it was a diamond in the rough. The overgrown landscape had changed from its natural sandhill forest into oak woodland. He spent the next 30 years restoring the forest, principally through prescribed fire, a discipline that requires the combined skills of a naturalist, fire marshal, weather man and neighbor-relations expert.
When it comes to reversing nature, progress is slow. Morrison has had to burn some areas eight times over, and only in the last few years has the land been restored to what it was: open pine woods alive with thriving populations of Sherman’s fox squirrels, threatened gopher tortoises, red-headed woodpeckers, endangered Florida panthers, foxes, deer, otters, bobcats and black bears.
“I knew all about Sticky long before I met him. He has inspired and mentored hundreds of people,” said Zachary Prusak, The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Fire Manager and Central Florida Conservation Program Manager. “A natural leader with a calm confidence and competence, he is simultaneously attentive to detail and aware of the big picture. People who know the demands of working with controlled burning call him the Gandalf of Fire.”
Morrison’s larger-than-life reputation extends far beyond the borders of the conservation community.
“Speak to anyone in the Lake Wales area and they know him,” said Cheryl Millett, a biologist who works for The Nature Conservancy. “He’s the most interesting man in Florida—a Renaissance man, a sage, a mentor and a friend of the Earth.”
In his spare time Morrison runs Sandy’s MusicGirls, a charity named after his late wife that creates musical opportunities for girls. He plays old-time fiddle in Sticky Steve and the Pollinators and makes honey with the label “they work while I play.” He organizes Lake Wales Mardi Gras events, an annual Bass Tournament, a Christmas Bird Count circle, and is the go-to guy for all sorts of outreach and educational events in the community.
It came as a surprise to many when Morrison stepped down from his job as conservation manager last January, but he said he was ready to work on the next chapter of his life and see the world, now that Tiger Creek’s restoration is largely complete.
Looking back on his career with The Nature Conservancy and his three decades at Tiger Creek, he said he feels blessed.
“Few people get the chance to do what I have done, spend a whole career in one staggeringly beautiful place, and see it change back to the way it once was … the way it should be.”
And the name? During an introduction and handshake in which Morrison noted, “I’m sticky” from working with his honeybees, the nickname, well, stuck.
TIGER CREEK PRESERVE TOP 10
From the man who knows it best
- Scan the clouds for soaring short-tailed hawks (they kite at 500 feet, hunting for small birds).
- Sneak up on gopher frogs (they hang out at the entrance of gopher tortoise burrows, but jump down the burrow when alarmed).
- Swim in the creek.
- Follow gator tracks in the sand when they move from one pond to another. (Young gators get kicked out of ponds by bigger ones).
- Hike at night without a light.
- Hike at daybreak when the sunrise backlights thousands of spider webs in the open wetlands.
- Hike in a recently burned sandhill.
- Observe the antics of a red-headed woodpecker family.
- Watch swallow-tailed kites perform aerial maneuvers.
- Share the preserve with other people.
5 ways to make a difference
- Start within. Scrutinize your own lifestyle.
- Eat low on the food chain.
- Connect with your local habitat.
- Pay extra for organic.
- Understand that climate change is the most important issue.