Why did this businessman buy 53,000 acres in Florida?

Former gambler M.C. Davis has spent some $90 million purchasing land in the Sunshine State; his plans for it are astonishing.

Growing up in a cramped trailer on a dirt road in the Florida Panhandle, M.C. Davis, now 70, set out to make a fortune. He became a self-proclaimed hustler and gambler before turning his sights on buying land and mineral rights. He made hundreds of millions of dollars.

But one day he got stuck in a traffic jam and it changed his life.

"It's drizzling rain, and I was sort of just sort of frantic with exasperation," he told NPR. "Stuck in traffic, and I looked up, and I saw on the marquee of the high school, 'Black Bear Presentation.' "

Seeming a better alternative than traffic, he pulled over and went inside.

"I hate to confess to this," he says. "I didn't know Florida even had black bears at the time."

He listened to the lecture, it struck a bell. He started poring over books by environmentalists and the epiphany rang: He would devote his fortune to nature.

Twenty years later, and his Nokuse Plantation is going strong – Nokuse (pronounced “no-go-see”) is the Creek Native American word for black bear. At 53,000 acres, it is the largest block of privately owned conservation land in the southeastern United States. Most of the land was purchased from timber companies and he is restoring it to longleaf pine forest – he has planted 8 million seedlings already. It used to be that 40 million acres of longleaf pines once covered the South; by the 1930s it was all lost to lumber.

"I'd never even heard the word longleaf," Davis says.

And now, a forest is growing, thriving; as is a teeming array of wildlife including spotted eagles, ospreys, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, and armadillos. A group of 11 gopher tortoises, a threatened species in Florida, was recently rescued from a construction site and brought to the reserve where they can now live out their long lives in peace … along with the other thousands of gopher tortoises that have been given refuge at Nokuse as well.

Davis says that his wildlife restoration project is a 300-year plan, though how much of that he’ll see remains to be determined. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in November. He says he is leaving most of his millions to the conservation trust and to the environmental education center that serves thousands of Florida school children every year.

"That is the purpose," he says. "If there's such a thing as being perpetual — this will be here. No matter how stupid our species gets and how much it degrades this, it will start over. But I'm hoping that we're capable of leaving some huge biological warehouses that — if and when our country fails, and all of them do sooner or later — that hopefully the impacts wouldn't be total. That nature just doesn't have to start from scratch."

Tags: Conservation | Endangered Species | Florida | Forestry | Trees

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