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Preserve offers campus a natural sanctuary

Sawmill

One part living laboratory, one part natural retreat, the Sawmill Slough Preserve is the embodiment of the University of North Florida’s commitment to environmental sustainability and habitat protection. 


The 382-acre nature preserve is filled with a dizzying array of natural flora and fauna, all well-documented in a digital archive of plant and animal species released last spring. Since the University’s founding, students and faculty have discovered academic inspiration in the winding trails of the Sawmill Slough. Northeast Florida residents use the Preserve as a picturesque backdrop for running or even a picnic spot for family weekends. It’s a treasured place to call home for all Ospreys, and it sets UNF apart from nearly every university in the world. 


The University isn’t alone in its commitment to sustainability. Many institutions weave environmental learning into their core curricula, but UNF stands out in that sustainability is melded into the very core of the University experience. Students attend classes near a beautifully maintained nature preserve, engage in collaborative learning inside Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified green buildings and learn from professors who take research inspiration from the very campus itself. It’s little wonder that UNF has been honored by some very elite organizations for being one of the “greenest” institutions around. 


“Since the campus’ construction in the early ‘70s, UNF has been uniquely positioned to maintain a connection to nature and the environment,” said Chuck Hubbuch, assistant director of Physical Facilities and curator of the Preserve. “The Sawmill Slough is truly a sanctuary for all types of birds and native Northeast Florida plants and a beautiful place for students to learn more about the world around them.”

Early stewards of the Sawmill Slough


Golden and Loftin – the names are prominently displayed around the Sawmill Slough. 


UNF’s 1,500-square-foot Environmental Education Pavilion in the Preserve bears the name of John Golden, UNF’s chief nature trail ranger and environmental educator for almost 20 years. Golden passed away in 2003, but his impact lives on when area children assemble in his pavilion to learn about the wonders of nature from UNF’s environmental education specialists. Golden received the Mayor’s Individual Award for Environmental Protection and was awarded a grant from the Environmental Protection Board while he was at UNF. The grant made it possible for hundreds of low-income children to participate in ranger-guided environmental education programs at the University. 


The Robert W. Loftin trails honor the legacy of a UNF professor who was a leading voice in the River City’s environmental community. Loftin, along with UNF students from the Sawmill Slough Conservation Club, founding faculty, staff and community members helped guide UNF’s first president, Thomas G. Carpenter, to apply to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for campus designation as a state-protected Bird Sanctuary to control hunting around campus. The trails were opened to the public in 1973 and were recognized in 1977 as National Recreation Trails and listed by the Department of the Interior. This designation continues to this day, protecting the creatures that call the campus nature trails home. 


Both men were key voices in the campus’ formative years and helped nurture a natural oasis surrounded by one of the country’s largest metropolitan cities. Current UNF President John A. Delaney renewed the University’s commitment to environmental protection in 2006 when he designated the Sawmill Slough wetland habitat a full preserve, ensuring that the grounds stretching through the western portion of the campus from Central Parkway to J. Turner Butler Boulevard, as well as some of the small areas of drier habitat along the way, would be protected in perpetuity and excluded from any future construction projects. 


“Our Preserve over the years has received a tremendous amount of support from the administration and a number of key stakeholders like John Golden and Robert Loftin,” said Amy Costa, assistant director of Eco Adventure, the campus unit funded by Student Government that provides nature-friendly recreational activities for students in parts of the Preserve.

Eco Adventure


The Preserve includes trails for running, hiking and observing wildlife and is a great place to unwind and reconnect with nature.
Students can check out canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, backpacks and other gear all free of charge. Eco Adventure wants to have a small footprint, leaving the preserve as undisturbed as possible while providing students with opportunities and supplies to enjoy their unique surroundings.

Taking inventory


The Preserve isn’t just a ropes course and a spot for kayaking trips. Some of the best student experiences offered are distinctly academic in nature. Take the recent inventory of species led by Environmental Center staff and Hubbuch, the Preserve’s curator. 


It was the reason biology major Hallie Leager set up a makeshift soda bottle trap during a recent stint as a student volunteer for the Environmental Center. She was on the hunt for beetles that had never been documented on campus, hoping that she’d be able to identify the species and add it to the inventory, which has become a large part of the Preserve’s management plan. Leager, who worked with Environmental Center staff, said she would see something new just about every day. 


“I feel like I learn so much in the Preserve,” Leager said.


Hubbuch, a skilled horticulturist, said the goal of the archive was to establish a baseline of species. This was key to the effective management of the Preserve. While Hubbuch had already been recording plants as he discovered them, the desire to capture what was in the Preserve continued to grow. In 2011, the Environmental Center sponsored two biology graduate students to work on the project, and Justin Lemmons was later hired to further assist with inventories and research.


“There is such rich diversity in the Preserve,” said Lemmons, who mentioned that there are several threatened or endangered species on the list, including the wood stork, gopher tortoise and a couple of orchid varieties. “The archive is key to being able to effectively manage and maintain our native species on campus. It’s also important for restoration.”


The inventory is ongoing, but it includes 576 varieties of plants, 164 birds, 242 insects/invertebrates, 62 reptiles/amphibians, 46 mammals, 16 fish and 15 lichens to date. The digital archive page for each species provides taxonomic information, links to other informative websites and photos. There are several bats, rats and mice, a couple of species of fox, a panther, black bear and the much-celebrated bobcat caught on a wildlife cam under Eco Road. (The panther and bear are old sightings.) There are hundreds of plants, lots of bugs, snakes and frogs and, of course, the American Alligator. It is important — and perhaps a bit comforting — to note that all the species are not necessarily residents of the Preserve but might be simply passing through. The inventory team is particularly proud of the fact that 39 species of plants identified in the Preserve have never before been documented in Duval County.


For students and faculty, the Preserve is a living lab providing endless possibilities for research and education. James Taylor, coordinator of the Environmental Center, said he knows the students appreciate what they have at UNF, and the Preserve serves as the backdrop for many interdisciplinary partnerships that the Center seeks to cultivate. The archive is just one example. From the chemistry professor, Dr. Stuart Chalk, who created the digital archive to graduate students in the history department studying and documenting the Preserve’s past, interest in the Preserve and its significance is wide-reaching. 


“We want to branch the disciplines,” Taylor said. “It’s what we’re all about. What exists right now in the Preserve is important from a biological standpoint, but there’s also a historical element. It is important to know the history of the land, as well as what may no longer be living here and why.”


Matt Groth, a biology student who also works in the Environmental Center and helps with the inventory, said the natural environment was a big reason he came to UNF. 


“It was one of the things that really set UNF apart from other schools,” he said. “It’s not just the fact that the Preserve is here, but that UNF actually takes steps to manage and protect it.”


Hubbuch believes providing access to the Preserve’s inventory of species is part of responsible management. 


“It doesn’t do us or anyone else any good if we’re the only ones who see it,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for the public and our students to learn about the Preserve. It’s a great resource, and making it accessible may help us discover even more species that we haven’t identified yet. This is another way that we as a University have been able to maintain our ties to the nature that surrounds us and safeguard the native plants and wildlife sharing our campus.”

To view the archive of species, visit preserve.unf.edu.

Have photos in the Preserve?
Share them with the Environmental Center for their digital and historical archives. Whether it’s a photo of an interesting plant, a family picnic or a friend hiking in the Preserve, send it to the Environmental Center, 1 UNF Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32224 or e-mail it to j.taylor@unf.edu.