Land Managers

Growing up a farm boy, land manager appreciates the land

Land Manager checking for pine beetle infestation
District Land Manager R.H. Davis checks a sample of bark to determine if insects or disease have invaded this tree.
R.H Davis and Publix employees planting small trees at Sunnyhill Restoration Area
R.H Davis works with Publix employees to plant trees at Sunnyhill Restoration Area.

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.”

A mentoring grandfather, summers camping focused land manager on career

Maria Zondervan on a platform in a tree cutting a cavity for a red-cockaded woodpecker nest
Maria Zondervan cuts a cavity in a long leaf pine tree to create a nesting area for red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Maria Zondervan banding a scrub-jay
A Florida scrub-jay gets its identifying leg bands by Land Manager Maria Zondervan.

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.”

Childhood visits to district land helped foster land manager’s future career

Jeremy Olson removes a trap from a creek to see what creatures live in the waterway
Jeremy Olson removes a trap from a creek to see what creatures live in the waterway
District staff discussing a prescribed fire
Part of the job of a land manager includes planning and participating in conducting prescribed fires. Jeremy Olson, right, reviews a fire map.
Jeremy Olson holding a small bass
Land Management Program Manager Jeremy Olson was part of a team of district scientists and lands specialists who surveyed Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area to identify the plants and animals found there to write a land management plan specific to the property.

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

Marston Holbrook and Heather Venter loading a hopper
Marston Holbrook and Heather Venter load native grass seeds into a spreader behind a tractor to plant at Bayard Conservation Area.
Bluff overlooking Black Creek at Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area
Sandy trail at Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area

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.”