You + Nature + Someone Else = 2018

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Aucilla Wildlife Management Area

Issue #17

You + Nature + Someone Else = 2018

By Peter Kleinhenz

Goodbye, 2017. The year and the holiday season signaling its termination are over. The trajectory of how my past year has gone resembles a silhouette of the Himalayas. Bringing a new kitten home and seeing my first tiger in the wild were highs while a blown head gasket and total-body chigger infestations were not. These moments probably seem as related as a Deadhead and a fan of Justin Bieber, but a consistent theme exists: all of these intense memories involve me and someone else.

Why am I mentioning this? You see, the time of resolutions is upon us and if yours involve family, friends, exercise or the outdoors (and they better) then I’ve got a place to introduce you to. It’s a locale especially conducive to making memories with others and it’s called Chinsegut Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA).

Chinsegut WEA
Open stands of longleaf pine define the fire-maintained ecosystem at Chinsegut WEA, photo by Matt Koenig

At 853 acres, Chinsegut WEA takes up less space than almost any other property that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) solely manages. What this Hernando County property lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for with habitats and the species that inhabit them. Male gopher frogs call to their mates in wet prairies, the unusual short-tailed snake pursues crowned snakes in the sandhills, and bobcats stalk through old-growth longleaf pines.

I love Chinsegut. I’ve visited twice, and both times I was struck by how genuinely wild the place feels even though it’s neither large nor far from heavily developed areas. After all, 6.7 miles of hiking trails somehow wind through the property and, walking beneath the 200-year-old pines, this feels like a place that squeezed through the bottleneck so many other natural areas in the region succumbed to.

A guide leads birdwatchers
Birders explore Chinsegut WEA, a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, FWC photo

Nobody knows Chinsegut better than its education director, Gina Long. She described why Chinsegut WEA feels this way.

“Since the early 1900s, it’s been a conserved property,” she stated. “So there haven’t been a lot of changes to the property since the first family settled this site, following Native American occupation. There was really only one family that ever lived here, and then after that the land was conserved. So, going back all the way to the early 1900s, there was just this incredible diversity of wildlife and this whole area had essentially been protected from outside contact.”

A Chinsegut habitat
Visitors experience a variety of habitats at Chinsegut, photo by David Moynahan

In the late 1970s, FWC staff took notice of the property. A biologist conducting a spotlight survey for deer visited the area and was so swayed by the potential opportunities there that he proposed that an educational center be built on site. By 1986, it was. What started as a few education programs targeted at children has blossomed into much more. These days, Gina and her staff teach outdoor skills, photography workshops and animal identification classes to members of the community, old and young alike.

“We offer opportunities for people, and that’s all ages, to visit May’s Prairie, which is an isolated wetland, to help us collect samples of water quality and also monitor wildlife diversity,” Gina elaborated. “We’re catching macroinvertebrates from the water itself and kind of monitoring the changes over the years in the things we’re able to collect there. We also offer opportunities to use some of our specialized wildlife viewing equipment to take a live look underground in gopher tortoise burrows. And also, in collaboration with the southwest region volunteer coordinator, we offer the opportunity for folks to take a live look into uninhabited bird nest boxes just to get an idea and a feel for some of the programs we work on with red-cockaded woodpeckers and American kestrels in the area.”

Adult and child

Observing wildlife together, FWC photo

Gina has a tough job. Her mission is to provide meaningful and memorable experiences for visitors while also instilling a deeper conservation ethic within them. In today’s world, where technology can both tear people away from nature and tear nature apart, it can be a juggling act to channel behaviors in ways that help the environment long-term.

Indigo bunting
Chinsegut is a choice location for seeing many birds such as this male indigo bunting, photo by David Moynahan

“We’re sort of fortunate in that, in our area, there are a lot of families that enjoy the outdoors,” Gina told me. “Over the last few decades, our appreciation of the outdoors has changed as a culture and it is nice to be in a position where I get to foster a connection between people and nature, and charge their enthusiasm for wildlife and conservation. We also try to help direct people to find the right location for activities they enjoy in the outdoors, where the land use designation matches their intended activities so that they can enjoy them safely. Our ideal outcome is that, through visiting Chinsegut, individuals will be better informed how and why wildlife and natural areas are protected and managed. We also hope that visitors will be motivated to learn more or take an active role in conservation.”

Chinsegut WEA has continued to evolve after the educational center was first built in 1986. Today, increased classroom space both indoors and outdoors allows for more people to participate in programming. The Florida National Scenic Trail, as of this year, officially passes through the property. Habitat restoration and active management has the property looking better than ever. Furthermore, as time passes, we as a society have a progressively better idea of how beneficial time spent in a place like Chinsegut WEA can be.

Chinsegut Conservation Center
The Chinsegut Conservation Center hosts many education programs and hikes throughout the year, photo by Gina Long

“[Time in nature] helps with a variety of challenges,” Gina noted. “People with a variety of older age issues, Alzheimer’s, memory loss…when they’re exposed to nature and exposed to sensory experiences, it improves their quality of life. Children that suffer from attention deficit disorder benefit greatly from getting outdoors. There’s a whole host of medical studies that could be cited on the benefits that nature has. And it’s also good for families, for bonding."

Whether you’re into the outdoors or not, I can almost guarantee that your best moments of 2018 will involve somebody else. In addition to its memory-making potential in terms of habitats, wildlife and available activities, Chinsegut WEA serves as a perfect setting for you to simply spend time with loved ones outside. I don’t know about you, but doing just that sounds like a perfect New Year’s resolution to me.

Nature photography class at Chinsegut
At Chinsegut, people of all ages learn outdoor skills, animal identification, nature photography (shown above) and much more, photo by Gina Long

The start of 2018 has brought cooler temperatures, making this the perfect time to visit Chinsegut WEA. Check the event calendar to find programs that might interest you. Maybe 2018 will be the year you explore a wildlife management area you’ve never been to before or try a new outdoor activity. The 75th anniversary of Florida’s wildlife management area system wraps up on January 27 at Tosohatchee WMA, so come help celebrate! You will have the chance to learn more about volunteer opportunities, wildlife that FWC manages and the Florida Nature Trackers program. Hope to see you there!