In Cahoots for Conservation

The productive partnerships fostered by the Indian River Land Trust mirror the symbiosis of nature

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Indian River Land Trust recently opened Oyster Bar Marsh along the west side of Highway A1A just north of Round Island Park. The property is a result of a years-long collaboration with Indian River County. Photo by Matt Fulcher
Indian River Land Trust recently opened Oyster Bar Marsh along the west side of Highway A1A just north of Round Island Park. The property is a result of a years-long collaboration with Indian River County. Photo by Matt Fulcher

On the savannas of Africa, zebras and ostriches sometimes work together to keep watch; the excellent hearing of the zebras is complemented by the keen eyesight of the ostriches. It’s just one of a multitude of examples of symbiosis in nature.

Fittingly, symbiosis is also important among groups working to preserve nature. That model is evident in the work of the Indian River Land Trust, which uses collaboration with many other organizations to enhance its efforts. And since these partnerships are mutually beneficial, they can well be described as symbiosis. “This is not competition,” says Dave Fuss, director of land stewardship for the Land Trust. After all, the organizations involved are trying to promote complementary goals. Land Trust executive director Ken Grudens concurs: “I never imagined we would have the array of partnerships we have today. It’s just amazing.”

IRLT board members watch Indian River County public high school students while they conduct hands-on research as part of the Junior Scientist Fellows Program at Coastal Oaks Preserve
IRLT board members watch Indian River County public high school students while they conduct hands-on research as part of the Junior Scientist Fellows Program at Coastal Oaks Preserve.

The Junior Scientist Program is one example. For this program, the Land Trust works with both Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the School District of Indian River County. The junior scientists are local students who get the opportunity to work with Harbor Branch scientists on research at Coastal Oaks, a Land Trust property that features a notably diverse range of habitats. The excitement of it is that this is not just a class project; the students are involved in genuine scientific research.

Another student-oriented collaboration is in the works with the Gifford Youth Achievement Center. And Brevard Zoo has done programs at Coastal Oaks with homeschool students and their families featuring themes like “Learning from the Land” and “Fantastic Forests.”

Homeschool students and their families engage in a scavenger hunt at Coastal Oaks Preserve during an outdoor nature class conducted by the Brevard Zoo
Homeschool students and their families engage in a scavenger hunt at Coastal Oaks Preserve during an outdoor nature class conducted by the Brevard Zoo.

Jennifer Phelps, education manager for Brevard Zoo, recalls, “Families would be working together to identify the birds they found, and that was great to see.” On one day, 14 roseate spoonbills were sighted. The group also heard frogs vocalizing and learned how to identify species of frogs by their sounds. “We talked about our FrogWatch Program,” a citizen science study that helps monitor frog species, which in turn provides clues about environmental health. “If you have a lot of water around you and not many frogs, that indicates it may not be a healthy water system,” Phelps explains. More information about the program is available on the Brevard Zoo’s website, brevardzoo.org.

Coastal Oaks has also attracted the attention of the Environmental Learning Center for potential tours. Such tours would be like “field trips” from the ELC, allowing visitors to observe varied habitats. “At Coastal Oaks, we have everything except pure sand scrub, and even at that we have gopher tortoises,” says Grudens, prompting Fuss to quip, “Four out of five gopher tortoises recommend it!”

IRLT worked with the county to acquire land along the Indian River Lagoon that is now Oyster Bar Marsh. Photo by Sam Wolfe
IRLT worked with the county to acquire land along the Indian River Lagoon that is now Oyster Bar Marsh. Photo by Sam Wolfe

Collaboration was essential in the passage of the recent referendum for Indian River County’s purchase of environmentally sensitive lands. The Land Trust worked to promote passage, as did the ELC, Pelican Island Audubon Society, and other groups such as the Indian River Neighborhood Association and the Clean Water Coalition. “It’s important to realize this was a team effort,” says Fuss regarding the initiative.

Carrying out the initiative will likewise be a team effort. The system will involve landowners presenting property to the county to be considered either for outright purchase or for conservation easements (agreements that limit development). “The Land Trust would be in a great position to make people aware of the program, to work with landowners, and to be a link,” says Fuss.

FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute students and volunteers use a seine net to collect juvenile tarpon and snook for tagging at Coastal Oaks Preserve
FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute students and volunteers use a seine net to collect juvenile tarpon and snook for tagging at Coastal Oaks Preserve.

The county land purchases will involve two areas that are of great interest to the Land Trust: property around the lagoon and property on the other side of the county, west of Blue Cypress Lake. Of course, the Land Trust is known for its focus on lagoon properties. “We haven’t taken our eye off that ball,” says Grudens, “but we have the opportunity to add these other types of property.” Land available in the western part of the county is usually ranchland. “Ranchland often has important pine flatwood areas, creeks running into Blue Cypress, and important freshwater wetlands.”

Purchasing or obtaining easements on such lands can also play into another collaborative effort—the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The idea of the Wildlife Corridor is “to obtain large blocks of continuous, uninterrupted habitat.” This would benefit animals like the Florida panther, which does not adapt well to human population.

FAU Harbor Branch graduate students and volunteers tag juvenile tarpon and snook to track their movements in mangrove wetlands at Coastal Oaks Preserve
FAU Harbor Branch graduate students and volunteers tag juvenile tarpon and snook to track their movements in mangrove wetlands at Coastal Oaks Preserve.

Restoration projects on Land Trust properties have also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the St. Johns River Water Management District. Other stalwart allies include the Indian River Mosquito Control District, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, the Trust for Public Land, and the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. The National Estuary Program has become important to the conservation efforts of the Land Trust and Indian River County alike.

Another major part of the Land Trust’s mission is providing access to groups that will appreciate and respect the protected areas. Along with conserving the lands, they want to foster appreciation, explains Melissa DePriest, the director of philanthropy and marketing. “And many of our partnerships allow us to do that.”

Along with scientific partnerships like the Junior Scientist Program, there are artistic programs that provide access. A key example is the Land Trust’s partnership with the Vero Beach Museum of Art. “We’re providing the space—and the beauty— for them to have classes,” DePriest says. Thus, some Museum Art School classes are held on Land Trust trails, including “en plein air” painting classes in which students work outdoors in the tradition of Claude Monet and the Impressionists. This activity gives students insight into the effects of light, atmosphere, and weather on a landscape scene. It is also a beautiful way to seek artistic inspiration from nature. And where better to find inspiration from nature than on land that is preserved and protected?

Perhaps the most unexpected collaboration of all, however, involves ballet. For Ballet Vero Beach’s ingenious adaptation Nutcracker on the Indian River, the Land Trust provided special tours for the students who were participating. Why? “To show them the mangroves they were dancing about,” Grudens says.

Ballet Vero Beach students performing in Nutcracker on the Indian River were given a tour of Land Trust properties
Ballet Vero Beach students performing in Nutcracker on the Indian River were given a tour of Land Trust properties.

Partnerships are clearly varied, but at the same time, collaboration is essential to the Land Trust’s mission at its most fundamental level: the preservation of ecologically valuable properties. A picturesque case in point is the newly opened Land Trust property known as Oyster Bar Marsh, the result of partnerships dating back over 20 years, with the county having purchased the initial lands and the Land Trust later purchasing the additional property needed to complete the project and allow the trail to be finished.

The Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail plays host to plein air painting coordinated by the Vero Beach Museum of Art
The Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail plays host to plein air painting coordinated by the Vero Beach Museum of Art.

What is the result of this recent example of symbiosis? Grudens describes Oyster Bar Marsh as “so serene, so bucolic. You feel like you’ve been transported.” The trail winds peacefully away from the noise and bustle of human activity. On one side is the lagoon, bright and sunlit, where dolphins and manatees may be sighted and ospreys soar overhead. On the other side are the mangrove thickets, deep and mysterious. It makes for a fascinating contrast in a place that is, indeed, serene—and symbiotic.

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