by Erica Schneider

Before signing up to volunteer in Big Cypress National Preserve, I had never even heard of a national preserve. Upon learning more about the difference between a national preserve and a national park at our first pre-trip meeting, my initial assumption was that a national preserve was inferior to a national park. Preserves allow for more access to the land than parks, including oil and gas exploration and extraction, hunting, off road vehicle use, and private land ownership. Although all these activities require permits or special permission, I assumed that through this much interference, how were the ecosystems even being protected?

Upon arriving at the airport, we had a long drive with a member of the staff at Big Cypress to get to our house we’d be staying at for the week. Although she was new at this preserve, she was able to answer a lot of my questions about the benefits of the preserve. She informed us that the preserve was created in the 1970s to prevent the land from being developed and turned into a huge airport. The people fighting for the preservation of the land though were not just conservationists, but also hunters and private landowners. In order to reach a compromise, the land was converted into a preserve rather than a national park. Without the help of the people that use and live on the land, the land wouldn’t have been saved at all. My initial assumptions about land preservation held that the less human interference, the better for the land. However in this case, without any human interaction with the land, the preserve wouldn’t exist at all and it would be completely developed, just like so much of the rest of Florida.

For the first two days of our trip, we worked at a site about an hour by buggy into the swamp where a house had burned down several years ago. After the house was destroyed in a wildfire, the land was returned to the Preserve. All that was left of the house was a beautiful chimney with a palm tree now growing out of it. The goal for that site was to clear it of the glass and metal shards that had melted into the ground so that the site could be used as a day site for people who bring their off-road vehicles outthere or even a campsite. The work we did at this site brought up some questions during the reflection we had as a team after the first day of work. Most of the trash we were clearing out had already started to be reclaimed by nature, some of the glass buried under inches of soil and held in by roots. I also had reservations about turning the site into a place that would encourage more human interference in the ecosystem. After discussing these concerns as a group and thinking about it myself throughout the week, I came to the conclusion that humans are necessary for the preservation of the land. If there came another proposal to turn the Preserve into an airport, the people that use and love it would be the first to defend it, and in the process help preserve the diverse ecosystems in Big Cypress Swamp that are so vital for the flow of fresh water in Florida.

After finishing clean-up at the first site, we spetd the last two days clearing an area that had been a hunting site for many years and had accumulated all different types of junk, including whole trucks, old farming equipment, tents, and tarps, all buried in the ground. What was notable about this site though were the tall, arching trees that stretched overhead. These trees were like nothing else I had seen in the swamp and actually turned out to be exotic plum trees that a farmer had planted years ago and that now threatened to take over the native ecosystems of Big Cypress. The trees were big and beautiful, creating shade for us to work under, so there were naturally some questions about the reasons for cutting them down, as we were supposed to preserving the environment, not destroying it. However at this site I learned from our contact and a maintenance worker we were working with that these trees were invasive. Without treatment, it was likely that these exotic trees would overcome the cypress, prairies, and pinelands that are so unique to this swamp, disrupting the diverse ecosystems and fresh water flowing through the swamp. Invasive plants have no natural predators or competitors, so once they are introduced and take root, they are there to stay unless chopped down and treated with chemicals to allow the space to return to its natural state.

Through talking to Joshua, our contact at Big Cypress, and the maintenance workers we worked with, I also learned a lot about how the National Park Service works at this Preserve. As people that possessed land at the formation of the Preserve die, their land goes to the preserve. As each of these properties is returned to the national park service, the houses must be cleared and prepared for demolition in order to return the land to its natural state. Because of how big the preserve is, they do not have close to enough staff to keep up with the maintenance of the preserve, especially due to budget cuts. It made me realize why volunteers like us are so important. As I was informed by one of the maintenance workers, he could have done the work we did in a day with his truck; however, when I asked him when it would have gotten done, he said probably never. I’m glad I got to be part of something that got something done that wouldn’t have otherwise been accomplished.

I believe that what I learned during this trip is not limited to Big Cypress, but can be applied to any natural space. Although too much human interference is a bad thing, humans are also the only ones that will be able to save the natural spaces they enjoy and love from other humans wishing to destroy them. I am planning to work at a Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts this summer in Northern Virginia to encourage the use of the natural space for enjoyment. I am also planning on getting more involved in a branch of SEAC that is working to clear out the invasive bamboo and other plants around the Crim Dell and plant native plants in their place. I also plan on continuing and expanding on the little things that I can do for the environment, like going vegetarian, recycling, and turning off lights. I believe that even if I can’t go out into the swamp and see tangible effects of my work every day, I can do the little things at home that effect positive change in the world.