George Willson, a Tallahassee resident, recently passed away following a battle with cancer. Willson was crucial in helping Walton County establish Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and Point Washington State Forest.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — A local activist remembers George Willson as "a real warrior for conservation."

Following a bout with cancer, the 68-year-old Willson passed away Tuesday, leaving behind an environmental legacy that some said was the backbone of Walton County.

"Probably nobody that's ever been involved in land acquisition in Florida has done more than George Willson," said Estus Whitfield, who knew Willson for more than 40 years. "He was a land acquisition conservationist paragon."

Whitfield, co-founder of the Florida Conservation Coalition, added that the Tallahassee resident spent more than four decades fighting to preserve Florida's ecology.

"He has a legacy here," added Celeste Cobena, chairwoman of Beach to Bay Connection. "How many of us are going to be able to say when we die, 'I left this planet a better place than when I got here?' "

In 1992, on the steps of the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, Willson attended a land auction on behalf of The Nature Conservancy. It was there that he secured more than 18,000 acres that would become Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and Point Washington State Forest.

"I can't even imagine if we did not have our state forest and park what we would look like," Cobena said. "He's the guy responsible for that."

For others, like local environmental activist Bonnie McQuiston, Willson's efforts are the reason Walton stands out among the other areas along the Gulf Coast.

"People flock here because it is unique and so different and so beautiful," she said. "We would look like Destin today if it hadn't been for (him)."

McQuiston added that without Willson, South Walton might not have the booming economy that it enjoys today.

Funeral services will be Aug. 8 at 11 a.m. at the Tallahassee National Cemetery, according to Tholley Taylor, owner Lifesong Funerals & Cremations.

"He was a very nice guy, honest as the day is long, and he was dedicated to the natural resources of Florida," Whitfield said.