BY ANN MCQUEEN A Walton County businessman and conservationist was named the 2006 Unsung Hero at the Public Interest Environmental Conference in Gainesville earlier in March. M.C. Davis of Santa Rosa Beach was honored with the award, which is presented annually by students of the University of Florida?s Levin College of Law, at a ceremony on March 10. ?Time and time again, our Unsung Hero (Davis) has chosen conservation over money and hard work over inaction. He has continually taken the road less traveled,? said Dustin Dailey, a third-year law student who presented the award. Davis?s contributions to conservation include the creation of Nokuse Plantation, a 55,000-acre nature preserve in central Walton County near Freeport in the works since 2002. Over the past five months, Davis negotiated the sale of conservation easements on over 18,000 acres of Nokuse Plantation land to the state of Florida at prices far below market value. These lands have become part of the Northwest Florida Greenway, a conservation corridor that runs from Northwest Florida to the Big Bend, connecting millions of acres of military reservations, water management district lands, and state and national forests. In March, Walton County agreed to relocate 50 gopher tortoises from the new county jail site in DeFuniak Springs to Nokuse Plantation. Gopher tortoises are classified as a ?Species of Special Concern? by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which means that special care is needed to prevent the species from becoming threatened or endangered. Davis?s Nokuse Plantation offers a unique alternative to ?incidental take,? or loss of environmentally sensitive habitat and species to development. The county could have paid $175,000 for a state incidental take permit that allowed for the destruction of the tortoises. Instead, it agreed to pay $17,000 to relocate them. Davis hopes to launch a tortoise preservation program, with Nokuse Plantation as a state approved site to which to relocate the species. Other notable projects initiated by Davis are Mallory Swamp, a 30,000-acre wetland conservation project in Lafayette County, Fla.; Glass Mountain, a 3,200-acre site in Dawson County, Ga.; and Alexander Bat Cave, a 210-acre bat cave in Perry County, Tenn. Davis was named ?Wildlife Conservationist of the Year? in 2004 by the Florida Wildlife Federation. He received the ?Blazing Star Award? from Green Horizon Land Trust in 2002. He has served as speaker for many conservation functions in Florida. In fact, he was a featured panelist at a discussion entitled ?The Choctawhatchee Miracle: An Uncommon Approach to Protecting a River Basin? at the PIEC. The panel discussion focused on forming informal alliances between government, public, and private interests to protect an environmentally critical river system threatened by development, as he did in the creation of Nokuse Plantation. The PIEC was kicked off with a presentation by nationally known environmental advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. on March 8. Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, served as keynote speaker at a banquet on March 10. ?It has been an absolute pleasure working together with Mr. Davis. He and his work are vital to the longterm future of Walton County,? said Scott Brannon, county commissioner for District 1. Each year, University of Florida law students name an unsung hero at the PIEC. The person is someone ?who has worked behind the scenes and who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to protect our environment,? Dailey said.