Land gift will help UF study state and national ecological health

By:
Stu Hutson 352-392-0400

Source(s):
John Hayes hayesj@ufl.edu, 352-846-0643

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Upside-down and flat on the sandy soil, the bucket trap has done its job.

Surrounded by forest studded with goldenrods and the lavender spikes of blazing star, Lori Wendland slowly and reverently tips the 10-gallon plastic bucket to one side.

Where she’s at is one of the few pieces of bona fide wild Florida left — and the University of Florida doctor of veterinary medicine is never exactly sure what she’ll find.

From under the bucket, she pulls a shell the size of a square shoebox. Holding it up like an oversized sandwich, she eyeballs the gopher tortoise face-to-face.

“When they’re sick, their eyelids get all puffy and their noses run — just like us,” She said. “But that’s a rarity at Ordway-Swisher. They’re away from all the stuff that people do that helps makes them sick. That’s one reason why the area’s so important.”

From swamps to sandhills, the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station spans one of the rarest collections of unadulterated land types in the nation — a precious rarity that makes it the perfect laboratory for measuring effects of environmental change.

Now, The Nature Conservancy is gifting the 3,000 acres of the Carl Swisher Memorial Sanctuary to the University of Florida Foundation to ensure that the pristine landscape will be protected in perpetuity.

The estimated value of this land gift was included in the total contributions received and counted toward the UF’s “Florida Tomorrow” campaign goal announced at the Sept. 28 kickoff event. The campaign is an effort to secure private resources to support UF projects that will benefit the Sunshine State for years to come.

“There are economically oriented people who have estimated that the value of the Swisher tract would be roughly $11 million,” said John Hayes, chairman of UF’s wildlife ecology and conservation department. “But in terms of the ecological, scientific and educational value of the site, it’s priceless.”

The Ordway-Swisher Biological Station was so named in November 2006 as a formalization of joint efforts within The Nature Conservancy’s Swisher tract and the UF Foundation’s Katharine Ordway Preserve. Together, these areas encompass more than 9,100 acres.

This past summer, the station was tagged by the National Science Foundation to be its core site for monitoring ecological processes and environmental change in the southeastern United States as a part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

NEON will be the first national interdisciplinary research program to track the status of the natural world. The designation could mean multimillion-dollar infrastructure investment for the station, followed by at least 30 years of funding.

“This program is going to be one of the biggest investments that the federal government makes for ecological science that we will see in two or three decades,” Hayes said. “The transfer of Swisher tract to UF ownership of the Station and was an important step in the NSF’s decision to select the Ordway-Swisher to serve as its core site.”

One of the tremendous values of the Swisher tract is its pristine wetland areas that have been protected from fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

“Florida’s wetlands are some of our most unique and valuable assets,” said Mel Sunquist, program director for the station. “Studying what they’re like here in many ways gives us a measuring stick for studying wetland ecological health everywhere else.”

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