Our land managers not only love the outdoors and water resources, it’s where they thrive.
Their passion for nature, combined with education and training, make each of them a great match for the diverse work that falls to the district’s Bureau of Land Resources. Land manager duties include monitoring land use, addressing ecological needs, prescribed burning, surveying wildlife, planting trees and harvesting timber, community outreach and much more.
In short, they are caretakers, watching over the more than 400,000 acres of public land the district manages, land set aside to protect Florida’s water resources.
A passion for protecting Florida’s natural world
Amy Copeland, a fifth-generation Floridian, can trace her love of the outdoors to her childhood in northwest Florida.
“As a child, I joined my father and grandfather on quail hunts, and we would walk miles through the sandhills of Blackwater River State Forest following the pointers as they worked,” Copeland recalls. “I spent my summer breaks in a homestead-era cracker-style cabin that had been passed down through the generations to my grandma. The cabin was like a basecamp and we’d springboard from there everyday to explore the sandy bottomed creeks, pine forests, seeps and ravines that surrounded it. On these explorations, my grandfather taught us to use field guides to identify trees and animals, and my grandmother would tell us stories about how her grandparents used to see Florida panthers from time to time.”
Copeland’s role as a land manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District is a natural fit. She combines her passion, knowledge and training to manage what is perhaps the most distinctive region of district lands: the 2,000-square-mile Upper St. Johns River Basin, noted for its mosaic of marsh, sawgrass and cypress domes. It’s east-central Florida’s version of the Florida Everglades.
“I always wanted to have a job where I would be making a difference in our natural world,” she says. “There’s office work involved, but the days I’m working with my team out in the field are priceless.”
Copeland, who has a bachelor of science degree in Forest Resource and Conservation from the University of Florida, joined the district in 2014 as a land management specialist. In 2018, she was promoted to land manager. Prior to joining the district, Copeland gained diverse experience working on conservation projects in natural areas throughout Florida. She has monitored, banded and helped translocate red-cockaded woodpeckers at several state forests and served as both a biologist and fire manager while working for the Florida Park Service in central Florida. During that time, she participated on and led burn teams that traveled throughout central Florida applying prescribed fire to natural systems in need of management and restoration. She also served as an instructor in support of multiple wildland fire training courses, including Basic Wildland Fire Training, Southern Area Engine Academy, Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Course, and Crew Boss Academy.
“One of the best things about this job is that every day is different,” she says. “You never know what you may see out in the field. It might be dozens of alligators resting on a canal bank. Or maybe hundreds of pink roseatte spoonbills perched in the tree island near the area known as the Stick Marsh.”
As a land manager, Copeland finds excitement watching natural communities improve with management and restoration efforts. “Our natural landscapes and diverse species are important and valued by people for many different reasons. Protecting and preserving these resources is necessary to preserve the ecological and cultural integrity of Florida.”
In managing thousands of acres of land, Copeland wears many hats. One day she might be in a helicopter leading an aerial prescribed fire in a marsh; on another, she’ll be canvassing properties in a truck to check on the status of a campsite or an endangered critter. For her, variety is indeed the spice of life.
“Natural systems sometimes need management,” she says. “We can provide the necessary structural and functional fixes to improve, restore and maintain the habitats of our unique plants and animals — that’s a very cool responsibility.”
Growing up a farm boy, land manager appreciates the land
Growing up on a family farm in north Florida, R.H. Davis figured he’d carry on the family business and build a career in agriculture.
“Watching the struggles of my parents trying to stay afloat with a small family farm and a lot of encouragement from my dad led me to seek other pathways for my future,” says Davis, a St. Johns River Water Management District land manager. “A career in some form of natural resource management seemed a good fit.”
Davis also attributes his career decision to the influence of his cousin, Glen, who was a ranger with the Florida Forestry Service. “Watching him and listening to his stories really interested me as a middle-high / school-aged kid. He encouraged me to go to college and once I graduated my course was set.”
Prior to joining the St. Johns district in 2000, Davis worked as an operations technician with the Suwanee River Water Management District, as a consultant with a forestry firm in Perry, Ga., and as the assistant farm manager for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch in Live Oak.
As a district land manager, Davis is realizing his dream of helping restore and enhance Florida’s most beautiful natural areas. It’s not always a day in the wild; there’s plenty of paperwork and contracts to manage, not to mention the time required to provide guidance and support to his staff.
“Many of the challenges I have faced since becoming a manager in 2007 have been associated with the restoration/enhancement work that has been accomplished on the former ‘muck farm’ properties,” he says. “We kind of had to write the guidebook when it comes to this type restoration. Such properties have and will continue to be a work in progress. I like to refer to it as peeling an onion, every layer you peel reveals a new layer and a new set of challenges.”
Davis embodies the district’s goal of hiring the best person for a particular job. Florida’s lands are Davis’ passion, a part of what defines him.
“Growing up in a farming family I have always had an appreciation for growing things,” Davis says. “I feel like that has continued into my job here. I have always looked at the restoration process like it was farming native plants. I really enjoy the hands-on parts of the job, whether it is prescribed burning or restoration work. You can look back at the end of the day seeing and feeling the accomplishment of the work you did.”
Volunteer work turned into fulltime career in natural resources
St. Johns River Water Management District Land Manager Pete Henn says he’s been fascinated by the natural world since childhood. Pursuing a degree in natural science was inevitable.
After graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in Biology, Henn left home for a volunteer position with the Student Conservation Association, working in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
“After two weeks of volunteering, the National Park Service hired me as a forestry technician where I engaged in battle with Kudzu and other exotic plants,” he said.
During his stint with the Park Service, he was introduced to wildland fire management. His next job was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where he played a role in controlling invasive Melaleuca plants and introducing fire to manage ecosystems there.
Henn joined the district in 1993 as a land management specialist and was later promoted to land manager. He says he was lucky enough to begin his career when the district was buying large tracts for conservation and managing properties from “ground zero.”
“It was at the district as a land management specialist and then as a land manager that I was really able to hone-in my fire management skills,” he says. “It’s neat thinking that you had a hand in enhancing and restoring probably well over 100,000 acres of district conservation lands using prescribed fire. I was also responsible for reintroducing fire to most of the conservation lands in the south-central region.”
“I would say my role is trying to make it as easy as possible for the team to accomplish their goals and be successful,” he says. “Rather than typical days, I think in terms of typical seasons. And there are two concurrent cycles. There are aspects of the job tied to the astronomical season in which I am staffing prescribed burns, staffing wildfire incidents, preparing for tropical events and then triaging. Then, there are the parts of the job tied to the fiscal year. By this I mean budget planning season, Florida Forever report and strategic plan update season, end of the fiscal year season, new fiscal year season, and so on.”
After 26 years, Henn still loves his job and the changes that have come with it. He’s also happy when he sees how much the public appreciates the district’s management of its conservation areas and the recreational opportunities that the district provides on these lands.
“Our work is important because all of us at the district are here to do our part in protecting and improving Florida’s natural resources for posterity,” Henn says. “I take pride in the fact that my son took his first shot at his first snipe on Seminole Ranch and as well as my daughter seeing here first rattlesnake on Buck Lake.”
Stewardship of the land and water is in his lineage
A love for the outdoors is in Chris Kinslow’s blood. His career destination as a St. Johns River Water Management District land manager seemed inevitable.
“My grandparents owned timberland in south Alabama, and I spent much of my summers as a youngster there, walking with my grandparents and spending time watching ants, birds, fish and snakes,” Kinslow recalls. “My grandpa also taught me the importance of managing the land using fire and timber harvest.”
Kinslow’s parents’ love of nature also impacted him in profound ways.
“My dad grew up on a farm in North Dakota and brought with him a land ethic shaped from indigenous culture as well as a mechanical aptitude that I use every day, whether I’m dealing with chainsaws or tractors,” he says. “My mother, despite her Coral Gables upbringing, has consumed her fair share of frog legs and spent many miles with her son on trails.”
Kinslow joined the district as an intern in 2008. After graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Conservation and a master’s degree in Natural Resource Policy and Administration, he worked at the Ordway Swisher Biological Station in Putnam County, occasionally teaming up with the district on prescribed fires and restoration projects. In 2014, he joined the district as a land management specialist and was promoted to land manager five years later.
As a land manager, Kinslow spends more time in the office than when he was a land management specialist. Much of his daily work involves planning for upcoming projects, such as prescribed fires or invasive plant herbicide treatments, and coordinating with his crew.
“The biggest challenge is how spread out our land management regions can be,” he says. “It takes four hours to get to all the property trailheads in our region — and that is short compared to some other land management regions.”
Despite the logistics of managing large tracts scattered across the region, Kinslow loves leading a team that accomplishes tangible goals: mowing and prescribed fires that reduce fuel for wildfires, restoration projects that preserve the prettiest swatches of Florida. He says,” I love talking to people and seeing them enjoy our lands in their own unique way.”
“I like to think that my daughter can see the same woods that my grandpa saw and future generations from there,” he says. “To be entrusted with managing land for the public is a big responsibility. Our lands provide so much by just being in conservation. So many songs are written about nature and its splendor. Let’s keep those opportunities for inspiration and make sure we add new ones.”
Childhood visits to district land helped foster land manager’s future career
It’s fair to say that destiny, in an indirect way, led Jeremy Olson to a career at the St. Johns River Water Management District.
“When I was little I always gravitated toward nature,” says Olson, the district’s land management program manager and the former land manager responsible for managing more than 30,000 acres in Alachua, Putnam and Marion counties. “My childhood home was adjacent to the Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area which, coincidentally, is a district-owned property.”
It was obvious to Olson’s parents that the natural world would play a dominant role in his life and career, so they nurtured his passions by buying him bug boxes, aquariums and field identification guides and let him roam the forests in muddy pursuit of snakes and creepy crawlies.
“As I got older, my parents pushed me to connect with mentors and pursue a wildlife ecology degree,” he notes.
Olson joined the district in 2012, following a seven-year stint with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Osceola County.
“Several of the properties I helped manage were owned by SJRWMD, so I met many district employees and was impressed with the agency’s mission and culture of empowerment,” he says. “When a district job was advertised in Gainesville I jumped at the chance.”
There are no typical days for Olson, and he isn’t complaining. One day may find him planning and implementing prescribed fires; on another, he’s restoring altered habitat or responding to emergencies, such as wildfires or hurricanes. The biggest challenge, he says, is not becoming overwhelmed with the volume of work or the job’s ever-changing dynamics.
“I think my friends get tired of hearing about how much I enjoy my job,” he says. “We use helicopters, airboats and horses to ignite prescribed fires. We work closely with law enforcement to catch poachers. We help facilitate outdoor events that encourage youth and disabled veterans to enjoy the properties we manage.”
There are also more subtle, slow-simmering rewards in being a land manager, Olson adds.
“Beyond the experiences that are instantly exciting, there are long-term projects that are exhilarating in a more nuanced way,” he says. “We are nudging ecosystems into a healthier state, a process that can take decades to accomplish. “
Olson says public access to the district’s diverse properties is critical.
“I’m proud of the district’s stance on public use,” he says. “I smile every time I see a little kid’s footprints in the mud or sand on one of our properties. It takes me back to when I was a kid exploring the Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area and is reassuring to know the passion I have for nature is alive and well in the next generation.”
Land manager is a steward of lands for future generations
Heather Venter says her mother ought to be nominated for sainthood for not cracking when Venter transformed the guest bathroom and backyard into a rehabilitation center for 41 juvenile opossums when Venter was in high school.
“One day I realized that helping the individual is great for that one creature, but it would be so much more impactful if I did something that would preserve the habitat so the wildlife wouldn’t need rehabilitators,” says Venter, a St. Johns River Water Management District land manager responsible for managing 40,000 acres of land in the district’s northern region. “That’s how I ended up at University of Georgia to become a wildlife biologist. It all started with a bunch of orphan marsupials.”
Venter, who joined the district in 2010, has also worked as a biologist for the Jacksonville district of the Florida Forest Service. It was during her Forest Service stint while working alongside former district Land Manager Matthew Corby — “one of the smartest folks I ever met” — that she applied for a job at the district.
“Every day is different,” she says. “Every Monday morning, I create a plan for what the north region staff will do that week and typically by noon on Monday that plan has already changed three times. Every day is an adventure. One day I may be hiking through the woods scouting an area I am hoping to do a prescribed burn on, making sure the soil moisture is just right and the firelines are in good condition; the next day I may be lighting a fire out of the side of a helicopter.”
Venter says it is a privilege to nurture a disturbed or unmanaged property toward something close to its natural state.
“My grandfather told me when I was a little kid — and I can remember it like it was yesterday — ‘God isn’t making any more land, so we better take care of what we’ve got,’” Venter recalls. “Those words of wisdom must have really sunk in; even years after he had passed away, I chose a career that would allow me to help preserve the public’s land. To me this land isn’t just my office, it is a gift given to us by previous generations of Floridians and it is a resource on loan to us from future generations. My mission is to be a steward of these land and natural resources for future generations and help to tell the land’s story so everyone can develop the same love for this ground that I do.”
A mentoring grandfather, summers camping focused land manager on career
Spend an afternoon with Maria Zondervan and you’ll learn that the endangered Florida scrub-jay will warn its family with an alarm call about encroaching hawks but has a different call to warn of predatory snakes.
Zondervan, a land manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District, is the lead wildlife biologist for the district’s program to recover the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the scrub-jay. But that’s just one of her many roles at the agency.
“I’m currently responsible for all the upland and marsh restoration projects at Lake Apopka North Shore, as well as the public recreation, prescribed burning, removal of invasive plants and animals, and property security against things like poaching and vandalism,” she says. “There is, of course, a team. I have a top-notch Land Management Specialist, Rosi Mulholland, and we have staff working together on prescribed fires, removing invasive plants and animals, and gathering water quality data. This is not a one-person show.”
Zondervan’s passion for the outdoors is rooted in her childhood camping trips in Europe. She grew up in Sweden.
“My grandparents would take my brother and me camping all summer long across many countries in Europe,” she says. “At each site, we would explore the area along forest trails, mountain passes and rivers. My grandfather always had a bird book with him and help me learn how to identify critters in general. My mom loved plants and flowers. Between them, I grew up with an appreciation for the nature around me.”
With each day comes a new challenge for Zondervan, and that’s what excites her about her job.
“The plan might be to write a scope of work that day or catch up on annual reports, but then the phone rings… a wildfire, lost hikers, rare wildlife sighting, a cut lock, poached alligator, fellow employee stuck in the mud – you name it,” she says. “It is certainly never dull around here and the word ‘bored’ is never muttered.”
Most of all, Zondervan believes her work will have a lasting effect, whether she is restoring habitat or aiding an endangered species population.
“I’d like to think I’ll one day be leaving this place better than I found it. That is my end game.”