It has been almost two months since I began my fellowship at the Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. I feel immensely grateful to HAF for this opportunity to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Being a South Florida local, I grew up less than 20 minutes away from A.R.M. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. While visiting the Refuge as a child I did not understand the role of National Wildlife Refuges and the important work its staff does to promote conservation. During my time thus far, I have learned that the mission of the USFWS is to “work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people''. I hope I can be of service to this goal throughout my fellowship.
Loxahatchee was designated an Urban National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. This designation means that the Refuge is within 25 miles of an urban area with a population of 250,000 or greater. Being an Urban National Wildlife Refuge provides an opportunity to connect with communities in local areas that may feel disconnected from nature. As Loxahatchee’s Urban Community Engagement Fellow, I have the unique opportunity to help support and build up its Urban & Community Engagement Program. The program’s goals are to build collaborative partnerships, dismantle barriers to access, and expand outdoor recreation and education opportunities.
My time at Loxahatchee thus far has been very motivating. The staff is full of people who are knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. I feel very welcomed and I admire the genuine care and effort each of them put into their work. In addition to working in support of the Urban Program, I also help the Visitor Service Team. I participate in monthly visitor service meetings, where we discuss and schedule events or programs. Through my involvement in both teams, I do a variety of tasks. I have designed quarterly event calendars along with other outreach materials, and I frequently represent Loxahatchee at tabling events out in the community. I also work to research how the Refuge can serve the needs of local communities that have historically been underserved or underrepresented in the county. This work begins with understanding the history and priorities of these areas. Through both research and conversations with residents, I plan to develop a series of documents called “community snapshots”. The documents will contain information that educates readers on the priorities of the communities in areas of Palm Beach County we aim to serve. This will help inform Refuge outreach programs towards the needs of the local communities it seeks to engage.
In addition to my work, one highlight of my time at Loxahatchee was attending a pair of public meetings regarding the establishment of a new conservation area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to establish an “Everglades to Gulf Conservation Area” in southwest Florida. The meetings included a presentation on the proposed conservation area along with a comment period for public attendants to speak on the proposal. It was amazing to see the amount of land (about 4 million Acres) that was enclosed in the proposed area. I was intrigued by the varying public comments on the matter. I found two speakers to be of particular interest, a man who was a local 3rd generation cattle rancher in Florida and Carlton Ward Jr. a wildlife photographer who worked on the film “Path of the Panther”. Both parties spoke in support of the conservation area and its importance in maintaining wildlife corridors in Florida. In addition to the public meetings, I had the chance to visit the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge for a swamp buggy tour of the refuge that same trip.
I am excited to see how I will grow in this position and learn how to best serve the goals of my team here at A.R.M. Loxahatchee National Wildlife. I hope that as I continue my work in this role I will be able to support the efforts to dismantle barriers communities may feel in regards to accessing outdoor recreation and taking part in conservation.