Why we love district lands

Maria Zondervan

A mentoring grandfather, summers camping focused land manager on career

Photo of a woman wearing a hard hat and holding a small chain saw, standing in a metal support cage attached to a pine tree.

Maria Zondervan cuts a cavity in a long leaf pine tree to create a nesting area for red-cockaded woodpeckers.

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.”

Photo of a woman holding a bird and selecting colored bands to attach to the bird’s leg.

A Florida scrub-jay gets its identifying leg bands by Land Manager Maria Zondervan.