CHIPLEY – The loss of local nature advocate Wayne Watkins is being felt deeply in Washington County, especially in the nature conservation community. Watkins, along with his wife Cynthia, founded the Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley in 1999, Florida's only wolf preserve and rescue sanctuary.

Watkins, 78, passed away Sunday, Feb. 5, after a battle with Burkitt Lymphoma, a result of exposure to Agent Orange during his military service in Vietnam. He leaves behind a legacy of wolf conservation and will be honored through the establishment of The Preserve, a foundation being set up in Watkins' honor.

Watkins joined the United States Army in 1967 as an officer, where he trained as a helicopter pilot before being deployed to Vietnam as an Aeromedical Evacuation Pilot. He served his country during the Vietnam War and was involved in some of the most intense battles and was wounded himself while evacuating severely injured troops. He was awarded many medals for his actions, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

"Major William Wayne Watkins was a great American and patriot who was proud of his country," said Cynthia Watkins.

After his time in service, he fulfilled his dream by opening Oaks Farm on Bonnett Pond Road in Chipley and began the hard work of developing the land, which would later become home to Seacrest Wolf Preserve.

Watkins spent 18 years dedicating himself to the conservation and preservation of wolves.

“The work of Seacrest will continue as passionately as ever," the preserve stated on its Facebook page. "Wayne is our hero and a hero for wolf conservation. He will live on in the love that he left behind in our hearts.

"Wayne was an incredibly visionary man and great conservationist, who loved the land in Washington County," added Cynthia. "I loved him very much, and his loss is immeasurable."

A memorial service will be held to honor Watkins at 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 19, at The Oaks Farm and Seacrest Wolf Preserve. located at 3449 Bonnett Pond Road. The service will be with military honors.

The Watkins family requests in lieu of flowers, that tax exempt donations be made to Seacrest Wolf Preserve, Inc. to "help continue the work of conservation and preservation that Wayne founded and believed in so deeply."