Florida Wildlife Federation’s Regional Policy Director Meredith Budd described predecessor Nancy Payton as “a force to be reckoned with.” Payton was the face of environmental conservation advocacy for more than 30 years starting when she joined the federation in the 1990s, voicing concerns about protecting the western Everglades, consequently helping open the federation’s Southwest Florida office.
Collier County proclaimed July 10, 2022, as Nancy Payton Day to memorialize Payton, who died in late May.
“It seemed really fitting and was really special to me and the Federation that the Collier County Commission decided to honor Nancy again, this time after her passing, for her longtime commitment to this community and all the benefits that we see came out of her passion and the work that she did in this area,” Budd said.
This certainly isn’t the first time Southwest Florida acknowledged what Payton has done for the conservation world. In July 2018, Collier County proclaimed a Nancy Payton Day upon her retirement. She was known to be a key member in many environmental efforts in the community, having even started Conservation Collier.
“[Payton] definitely stood her ground and had a passion for doing what she felt was in the best interest of wildlife, land and water resources for the future of this community and the future of Florida,” Budd said.
A major issue Payton tirelessly promoted was the importance of wildlife crossings in the area, specifically working to implement the City Gate wildlife crossing east on Immokalee Road, which became the first privately funded crossing.
She focused on protecting North Belle Meade, an area in Collier County north of Interstate 75 known to be vital in protection of the Florida panther. The Federation, along with other local conservancies, see the panther as an umbrella species, meaning what’s beneficial for the panther is going to be beneficial for a variety of native plants and wildlife.
In the 1980s, there were only about 20 panthers known to exist in Southwest Florida. Now, there are about 230.
“To know that work like Nancy’s and the work of others during that critical time when this office first opened and continued conservation efforts have helped raise the number of individual panthers in the population, it’s just really impactful,” Budd said.
In recognition of Payton’s accomplishments, an area of North Belle Meade is now called Nancy Payton Preserve, acknowledging her passion for protecting the area and promoting habitat connectivity underneath I-75 for panthers to enter Picayune Strand State Forest.
Daniel Smith, a research scientist in the biology department at the University of Central Florida, knew Payton for more than 25 years. Having met Payton through conducting research for his doctorate degree, Smith always was supported in his work and was hired under the guidance of Payton to conduct the Eastern Collier Wildlife Movement study. This study has since been relied on many times for the placement of wildlife crossings in the county.
“She funded a lot of my research over the years, so she became a really good friend and ally on the conservation issues with me,” Smith said. “She was a fantastic person, very enthusiastic and outgoing.”
As a leader, Payton was known to be pragmatic and open-minded, giving the often-conflicting sides of conservation and development an equal share in discussions.
“Understanding there are needs for development is paramount, but you have to make sure that you’re accounting for wildlife and water, and we can do it,” Budd said. “There’s ways to do it. We just have to have everyone at the table, and that’s what Nancy always did.”
Moving forward to continue what Payton started, the federation is continuing to collaborate with the county’s Department of Transportation to implement more wildlife crossings, since many panther and other wildlife mortalities from vehicles happen on county roads. The federation is also focused on protecting more of North Belle Meade.
“There’s a lot of Collier County that has development potential and we need to make sure that Nancy’s vision is continued,” Budd said, “and we can make sure that connections are maintained, and wildlife can roam and thrive on this landscape alongside the people.”
Smith looks forward to seeing Payton’s legacy living on through her research within the environmental community.
“In the reports and collaborations she’s done, not only with myself and the university but with the state agencies, I think that’s where her legacy is going to continue,” Smith said. “Those people that engaged with her or read her work if they’re preparing for a project will learn about her, that’s where she will really be remembered.”
Budd feels that having known Payton, the longtime environmental advocate would be proud, yet humbled, for her community’s appreciation and remembrance.
“She knew that her work was important, but she didn’t do it for glory,” Budd said. “She did it because it was the right thing to do. It is such as honor for the county to recognize that and I know she would be very grateful for the kind words and be very humbled by this honor.”