Focus on Florida: Book Review

Posted on July 25, 2023

Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation 

By Clay Henderson

Review by Laura Bennett-Kimble, Contributing Editor

For a comprehensive, thoughtful, insightful, personal and occasionally humorous trek through Florida’s wild and wooly environmental history, look no further than Clay Henderson’s 400-plus page book.

Organized in a loosely chronological fashion, the chapters cover everything from the early naturalists who were gob-smacked by the biological diversity found across the lands they explored, to battles fought to preserve said lands as the state’s population exploded.

Henderson, an environmental lawyer and educator, found his calling to protect Florida land in the 1980s, when he became involved in a local effort in New Smyrna Beach to halt development of five 20-story condo towers that would’ve been built overlooking the Ponce de Leon Inlet. 

From that grassroots effort, Henderson went on to draft and sponsor many environmental provisions in the Florida Constitution, including creation of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Everglades Trust Fund. 

The former Florida Audubon Society president continues to speak out about environmental issues, too. He recently was guest commentator in the Orlando Sentinel, writing about the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society’s decision to sell a nature preserve that had been donated to the local chapter with the expectation that the Mount Dora site would be preserved in perpetuity. 

Henderson is clear-eyed about the negative ramifications of development run amok, but this book isn’t a downer – he recounts environmental accomplishments that have helped protect not just natural sites, but also the plant and animal species that call those places home. 

With some 40 pages of references and a thorough index, the book is a useful resource on both the history and future of land conservation in this rapidly developing state.

The historical portions of the book are solid, with information on father and son naturalists John and William Bartram, who first explored Florida in 1765. Henderson next writes of John James Audubon, the next renowned explorer of the state, having first toured it in 1832. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, embarked on a “botanizing” walk from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, and Henderson shares Muir’s excitement with what he found in Florida: “Impressed by the size and apparently limitless age of cypress and live oaks, [Muir] wrote: ‘They tell us that plants are perishable soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this I think is something that we know very nearly nothing about.’”

Henderson also writes about the Everglades and Indian River, of course, but also the Lake Wales Ridge, an elevated spine running through the peninsula with its northernmost point in Lake County. The ridge, he says, “first emerged from the oceans two million years ago and contains some of the rarest plant life in America.”

From the 1905 murder of Audubon warden and Monroe County deputy Guy Bradley, who was killed for his efforts to stop plume hunters from decimating bird species for their feathers, to the state and federal political wrangling that resulted in things like passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, this book details the long and varied history of land conservation and how we’ve ended up where we are today.

It's a fascinating read.

The hardcover “Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation” is available for $38 through the University Press of Florida’s online bookstore,, as well as at the usual bookstore outlets.


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