St. Petersburg lawyer led the fight for wildlife and wild places

In 2013, environmental lawyer Tom Reese filed a lawsuit against Collier County.

“The lead plaintiffs,” former Tampa Bay Times journalist Craig Pittman wrote, “are listed as ‘Florida panthers’ and ‘red-cockaded woodpeckers.’”

Reese was clear then, as he was during his long career, about what he was working for.

“Tom was a pioneer in representing public interest groups,” said Clay Henderson, an environmental lawyer, educator and author of “Forces of Nature: A History of Land Conservation.” “We sort of take that for granted now. That wasn’t automatic. It took people like Tom to figure out how to do that and do it effectively.”

Reese died Feb. 4 at 70 due to multiple health issues.

Environmental attorney Tom Reese spoke in 2000 with Donald Buck, then chairperson of Oakstead Development District, inside the West Pasco Judicial Center, before finalizing plans to include a wildlife preserve in their new construction at Oakstead.
Environmental attorney Tom Reese spoke in 2000 with Donald Buck, then chairperson of Oakstead Development District, inside the West Pasco Judicial Center, before finalizing plans to include a wildlife preserve in their new construction at Oakstead. [ 2000 | Tampa Bay Times ]

Do something about it

Reese spent his entire life in St. Petersburg, and his early days helped shape his work.

“He was a native Florida son,” said Franklin Adams, a longtime conservationist. “If nature was your thing and the outdoors was important to you growing up, and then you begin to see some of these really special places diked, ditched and destroyed, and you reach a point where you wanted to do something about it. Tom was one of those on the right side.”

In 1980, the Tampa Tribune reported, Reese started his own practice in public interest environmental and land use law.

“Quiet trips down the Little Manatee River helped Reese learn what kind of lawyer he wanted to be.”

But there weren’t many of that kind of lawyer.

Before 1970, it was almost impossible for the public to fight big industry and business on behalf of the environment, said Henderson, because they had to prove actual physical injury.

“That was a bridge too far,” Henderson said. “He was one of the guys that built that bridge.”

Reese made his reputation early on working with nonprofit environmental group ManaSota-88 and took on the phosphate industry and radon prevention. In the ‘90s, he set his sights on Florida Power and Light when it pitched the idea of changing out all oil-powered plants to run on Orimulsion, “cheap dirty fuel from Venezuela,” Henderson said. “He took that bit in his teeth and he ran with it and created and rallied statewide opposition to that.”

“There was a lot of money on the table,” said Manley Fuller, former president and CEO of the Florida Wildlife Association. “The industry was pushing hard to get that in. I just recall sitting there watching Tom. He really seemed to turn that thing around.”

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Three things happened because of that battle, Henderson said.

First, Florida didn’t become dependent on Venezuela for fuel. Second, the oil-powered plants converted to natural gas. And third, FPL started investing in alternatives.

“Now, they’re one of the biggest solar providers in the country.”

Reese built a reputation as a lawyer who could not be bullied. Fuller often saw lawyers apply pressure on environmental groups through the threat of costly lawsuits meant to intimidate the opposition.

“They didn’t do that with Tom and his clients.”

During his lifetime, Reese helped protect the Little Manatee River and the Withlacoochee River through Outstanding Florida Waters designations. He helped protect wetlands. He was named the Florida Bar Association’s Public Interest Litigator of the Year and got a lifetime achievement award from the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Even more important — there are parts of Florida that are better for Reese’s work, Adams said.

“He was a good friend to the environment.”

Environmental lawyer Tom Reese is pictured in 2000 in front of his rose garden. The St. Petersburg resident designed and built his home.
Environmental lawyer Tom Reese is pictured in 2000 in front of his rose garden. The St. Petersburg resident designed and built his home. [ 2000 | Tampa Bay Times ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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