A voice for nature

Alumna heads Florida division of The Nature Conservancy

A voice for nature

Lakly with husband Daniel Lakly (BSEd ’91, Med ’95, EdS ’98) and twin sons Jake and Connor.

Photo by: Peter Frey

The first degree was a tossup between English and science. But after three UGA diplomas it was quite clear Shelly Lakly chose science.

“I’ve always been inspired by being outdoors,” Lakly says. “It’s how I find solace.”

That inspiration drove Lakly (BS ’92, MS ’94, PhD ’99) to become executive director of the The Nature Conservancy in Florida. The road to the Sunshine State, however, wasn’t a direct route. She spent seven years working for Zoo Atlanta and traveled the world working as an ecologist and conservationist.

“I did panda research in China, worked in Mongolia and worked with the Masai tribe in Kenya,” Lakly says. After these journeys, she worked for the Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy for four years and a year ago made the move to Florida to head the chapter there. The Nature Conservancy is the nation’s largest nonprofit conservation agency.

And one year has given Lakly plenty of time to speak up for nature. One success was the purchase of a tract of land to help the near-extinct Florida panther populate the area north of the Caloosahatchee River in the southwest part of the state. The project was 10 years in the making and required about $6.5 million in public and private contributions, Lakly says.

The Conservancy also has undergone an extensive coastal mapping project, aiming to locate fundamental marine ecosystem hotspots. Through this project, Lakly was able to save critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales from collisions with ships, just by adding a mere 10-minute reroute to a busy shipping lane in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Our work falls into two categories: restoration and protection,” Lakly says. In order to achieve its goals, the conservancy aspires to change the way the economy values the ecosystem.

That is crucial to the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Nature Conservancy is receiving $15 billion to $25 billion from last year’s RESTORE Act, legislation that seeks to restore Gulf Coast natural resources and economies through fines assessed to BP and other responsible companies.

“This money will be the biggest amount to hit the Gulf of Mexico in my lifetime,” Lakly says.

With these funds, the Gulf states can prove the vitality of the ecosystem, such as restoring oyster populations and mangroves that could potentially be used as a buffer for future hurricanes and other natural disasters.

“We really do long-lasting stuff,” she says. “We are the trusted voice in conservation the business community sits down with.”

Lakly says that it is necessary to move people on the continuum of caring about conservation.

“We must manage conservation to include the needs of humans,” she says. “We need to save the stage for the actors, whether they be animals or ourselves. Being able to protect the environment and ensure the natural world for future generations is a dream job.”

The only downside? Florida is ridden with gators. The blue and orange kind.

“We had to join a Florida Bulldawgs club,” Lakly says. “Gators are everywhere.”