Staff picks: We share our favorite district lands

Every so often we ask District staff: Every so often we ask District staff: Where is your favorite place on District lands? Land Management Specialist Douglas Voltolina from the District’s Bureau of Land Resources, gives us his answer.

Doug Voltolina standing by a lake

District Land Management Specialist Doug Voltolina chose the District’s River Lakes Conservation Area in Brevard and Osceola counties as his favorite District property. Its wild meadows and river views transport him to an earlier time in Florida.

He finds his favorite places among ‘old Florida’ marshes

Doug Voltolina stands atop a remnant of a levee, pointing to a cluster of trees in the distance that marks an ancient shell midden (an ancient trash heap used by native Americans) known as Moccasin Island. Further out, one can see a ribbon of blue where the St. Johns River widens to become Lake Winder.

Voltolina is sharing one of his favorite “quiet places” at the St. Johns River Water Management District’s River Lakes Conservation Area, a sprawling property covering nearly 40,000 acres in Brevard and Osceola counties.

Less than four miles east, visitors to River Lakes must navigate the logjam of traffic in Viera, one of the fastest-growing communities in Florida. The contrast between Viera and River Lakes is stark. For Voltolina, it’s the closest thing to time travel.

“The Ais (native Indian) people used Moccasin Island as one of their stops along the St. Johns River for hundreds of years,” Voltolina says. “There’s so much history along this stretch of the river. This is old Florida. We’re seeing the landscape that the native people saw over the course of a millennium.”

If you need a good mechanic, find the guy with grease under his fingernails; by the same token, if you’re seeking advice on an ideal natural area to visit, talk to the guy who has helped manage District lands for 24 years.

“It’s all about the vista,” he says, noting the pink-and-white marsh mallows in full blush. “Just north of us, this is a part of Florida that people drive through on their way to the coast or to the theme parks. And they’re never going to see this, which is kind of sad.”

Moccasin Island in River Lakes Conservation Area in Brevard County

Looking west toward a copse of trees known as Moccasin Island in River Lakes Conservation Area in Brevard County.

Passionate about his job, Voltolina can’t help explaining the District’s role in maintaining the health of the floodplain spread out before him.

“I love burning this place,” he says. “We’ve prescribed burned this marsh regularly for the last 15 years and it shows. It’s healthy and thriving. Invasive plants have been kept under control. I look at the work we’ve done out here over the years and know we’ve saved the natural areas and provided 14,000 acres of flood protection by removing most of this old levee we’re standing on.”

Voltolina is eager to share another favorite location that requires a short drive in his truck. He travels slowly along a grassy access road, pointing out a deer and later, a sandhill crane, in a vast field of tall grass dotted with cabbage palms.

“You’ll see cattle out here,” he says. “The Duda family founded Viera, but they still run cattle out here. Like I said, it’s like going back in time 100 years. You’ll see wood storks, bald eagles and Florida softshell turtles. Maybe even a wild hog or a wild turkey. There’s nothing wrong with old Florida.”

Voltolina unlocks a gate and drives west until he reaches an enchanting oak hammock. He turns right and enters a wide serpentine trail through the trees. The oaks filter the late morning sun through wisps of Spanish moss, shafts of light playing on the hood of the truck.

A picture postcard scene comes into view, timeless and slightly haunting. Here, the placid St. Johns River slightly narrows, its waters lapping along the muddy shore beneath the oaks. A newly built wooden pavilion sits empty, promising visitors a moment of solitude and introspection.

But Voltolina isn’t focused on the scenery. It’s something else.

“Listen,” Voltolina says. The normally chatty outdoorsman is silent. He doesn’t move. The only sound is the wind passing through the Spanish moss. Another gust passes through the trees and it sounds like a gentle wave, rolling and softly breaking.

“You can’t even hear an airplane overhead and there isn’t a car for miles around. And anyone can come here and enjoy this. This is the beauty of public land. It’s for all of us.”

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