Dedicated to the protection of birds, other animals, and their habitats through education and activism
Southeast Volusia Audubon Society, P.O. Box 46, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32170; president@SEVolusiaAudubon.org
Pete Henn faced a dilemma. A 30-acre pasture at the Econlockhatchee
Sandhills Conservation Area in Orange County needed regular mowing as a
safeguard against wildfires. A mowing contract would cost several
thousand dollars, and Henn had 90,000 additional acres of maintenance
issues to consider.
“I received a call from a local cattleman who had been eyeing the property to mow for hay,” says Henn, a land manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District. “It was the perfect solution. Through a lease agreement, his mowing keeps the pasture open as a fire line and he gets his hay.”
Henn’s solution was clever but not atypical of the inventiveness that characterizes the District’s Land Management Program.
The District is generally associated with regulating water withdrawals and activities that can impact water resources; but one of the agency’s less visible roles is taking care of land to protect water resources. The District owns an interest in or manages nearly 700,000 acres of land throughout its 18-county region, a responsibility that requires the agency’s land managers to juggle many roles: firefighter, biologist, environmentalist, educator, landlord, builder, planner, good neighbor, sounding board for public concerns and partner to myriad stakeholders and recreation-based organizations.
“Our land management staff is assigned a certain region of several conservation areas, usually over several counties,” says Nels Parson, a District land manager. “On average, we have one land management field staff person to deal with various issues for every 17,000 acres we manage. We are one of the most efficiently staffed agencies in the state based on the services we offer.”
Keep in mind, District lands are unlike a state or county park system that has recreation as the primary purpose. Because resource management is the agency’s primary land management function, you won’t find on-site “rangers” to manage and maintain a specific property. Yet, the District manages and maintains recreational resources on more than a half-million acres, spread over 40 conservation areas including more than 100 trailhead parking areas, more than 70 campsites, observation towers, inclement weather shelters, picnic pavilions and boardwalks, as well as nearly 300 miles of marked trails.
“If you’re looking to get away from the other 20 million people in Florida, water management district lands are a great place to go,” Parson says.
At the south end of the District, in Indian River County, the
headwaters of the St. Johns River flow lazily north. Here, the river is
a confluence of blackwater cypress swamps and open marsh. Watery
airboat trails snake through sawgrass and cattails. This 175,000-acre
wilderness is District Land Manager Doug Voltolina’s office.
Voltolina is as adept at navigating his work truck atop bone-jarring levees as he is on asphalt. He can glance at a swatch of forest or grassy marsh and determine whether or not the vegetation is in need of burning to reduce the chance for wildfire. He knows adjacent landowners — the majority of them farmers and ranchers — on a first-name basis. He interacts daily with hunters and hikers, elected officials and law enforcement. There may be a dozen competing interests for access to District lands, and Voltolina seeks to find a balance.
“Managing land isn’t just buying property and putting a fence around it,” he says. “Land managers deal with all kinds of people on a daily basis. We’re like the ambassadors of the District, at times.”
In Voltolina’s case, managing District lands isn’t limited to solid ground. The river’s headwaters are a matrix of man-made canals and restored marshes, the ideal playground for airboaters. Voltolina has developed a solid relationship with the Brevard County Airboat Association, an active and volunteer-oriented organization of more than 100 members.
“It’s been very educational working with St. Johns,” says Walt Lorraine, the airboat club’s president for the past six years. “I’ve had to identify the District’s goals to see how I can find an alignment with the airboat association’s goals. It’s been fantastic for the past three or four years.”
Citing a couple of examples of successful ventures with the help of the District, Lorraine described how his group received District approval to trim airboat trails of willows that can limit visibility or strike the sides of airboats in the marsh. He’s also proud of his group’s annual cleanup events that reduce the amount of garbage for land managers to pluck from campsites along the marsh. Lorraine was so impressed with the District’s land management efforts that he made the two-and-one-half-hour drive from his home to the District’s Palatka headquarters this past summer to extol the work of District land managers.
Lorraine is a familiar face at the District’s recreational public meetings, held several times a year at various locations throughout the region. The meetings allow various user groups to offer input about recreation on District properties.
Waterfowlers such as Capt. Jeff Kraynik represent one of the more active user groups at the south end of the District. “I began attending the District’s public meetings on recreation about 12 years ago and noticed there wasn’t any representation of duck hunters, even though a lot of project funding comes from Ducks Unlimited or the purchase of duck hunting stamps,” says Kraynik, the state marsh chairman of Ducks Unlimited. “St. Johns’ staff listen to stakeholders. We may not always agree with the District, but at least they listen to the point where they will hold additional meetings to hear what we have to say and take it into consideration.”
Kraynik says the District has a tough job balancing the needs of user groups against its main mission in the Upper St. Johns River Basin: preventing flooding, protecting water quality and enhancing water supply.
“It’s kind of an oxymoron,” Kraynik says. “The District does a great job conserving land, but they’re managing more for holding water. It’s kind of a balancing act for them. The District has to constantly manipulate water, and on top of that, they still have to deal with Mother Nature. We’ve had a drought over the past couple of years, and the marsh has changed a lot. Some places aren’t accessible by airboat any more. A lot of vegetation has come up. People blame the District but it’s not the District’s fault. You can’t control Mother Nature. As a state marsh chairman for Ducks Unlimited and a local guy, St. Johns has been a pleasure to work with. I look forward, even in these bad budget times, to working with the District in the future.”
On the surface, it would seem that managing thousands of acres of wilderness would require little effort. How much management could “wilderness” need? As it happens, managing natural areas requires forethought and long-term planning.
Steve Miller, longtime head of the District’s Land Management Program, has his thumb on the pulse of District landholdings. His job is one of constant assessment: Are there eyesores on the property that need to be repaired or removed? What does a property require to make it accessible to the public? Are there security issues? What types of recreational uses would be most appropriate for the property? Is it more important to burn a property that is in regular rotation or a newly acquired property that is overgrown and has never been burned?
“We try to fit the best use to each property,” Miller says. “If the property is primarily marshes, it is better suited for airboats than horses. We also have to be cognizant of the primary purpose of the property. What can we do to provide activities for the public and still meet our objectives?”
Technology is aiding land managers in organizing information to better manage District lands. District staff are developing a geographic information system (GIS) that captures and stores information onto maps of District lands. Information about wetlands, trails, roads, recreation facilities, even 911 addresses, can be layered on top of one another for a holistic view of a property.
“GIS mapping is valuable in so many ways,” Miller says. “For example, we’ll know how many miles of trails we have and whether the trails are suited to horseback riding or hiking. GIS also enables us to catalog the number and miles of trails by property, or by county, depending on the questions we are being asked. We’ll also have 911 information available in case someone is injured out there.”
Technology aside, land managers say they derive the most satisfaction from interacting with the people who use public lands, be they hikers or horseback riders, bird-watchers or hunters. Sometimes, that interaction surpasses the normal workday, as Ella Lindsay can attest.
Lindsay, Rice Creek area section leader for the Florida Trail Association, recalls how Miller and Parson volunteered to help the organization build footbridges across a swamp at Rice Creek Conservation Area.
“I couldn’t give them enough stars,” Lindsay says. “The land managers have been helpful at every opportunity. Steve and Nels have even come out to work on a bridge we built through the swamp. They worked in water up to their waists, right there in the middle of things. They show an interest in what we do and help us make trails better for hikers.”
Miller says he and other land managers are simply doing what they love. “The best part of the job is managing the land for the public,” he says. “They might be the segment of the population that never visits the land but benefits from the flood protection or a protected water supply. Or they’re the part of the public that regularly visits the land to enjoy the sights, sounds and scents of the natural resources on the property. The opportunity to conserve all of those benefits for future generations is just overwhelming.”
Two red cockaded woodpecker chicks receive leg bands so land managers can monitor their health and growth. The birds are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.