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The Preservation of UNF’s Sawmill Slough Preserve

On any given day of the week, you may find William Smith surveying Gopher Tortoise Ridge or one of the other trails within the Sawmill Slough Preserve while driving a golf cart. Though he definitely enjoys weekly visits to the Preserve, these trips are not recreational. It’s actually part of his job as assistant director of physical facilities.
Smith, who previously spent 22 years with the St. Johns County Parks and Recreation Department, manages the day-to-day operations of the Physical Facilities Landscaping and Grounds Division. He is also the curator of the Preserve. In that role, he coordinates with the Division of Forestry, North Florida Invasive Plant Society and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on key land management aspects for land preservation.
Gopher Tortoise in the Sawmill Slough PreserveAs UNF celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Sawmill Slough — the 382-acre nature preserve comprised of swamps, forests and ponds covering the western part of campus, remains a major feature of UNF’s sprawling natural appearance. The Preserve is home to a thriving wildlife scene including gopher tortoises, snakes, deer, birds and more. According to Smith, that’s a great sign considering the Preserve is surrounded by major commercial and residential development, not to mention a major interstate in I-295.
“My job is to preserve the land in its natural state,” he said. “We manage it for public access but try to keep it as natural and native friendly as possible. Our footprint in the Preserve is minimal as we try to stick to trail access only. By doing that, we are not interfering with the native flora or fauna.” When asked how visitors can assist in preserving the land, he said everyone can help by keeping it clean and only leaving footprints.
Walking Trail in the Sawmill Slough PreserveSmith and his team actively monitor the Preserve’s trails making sure they remain clear of debris and the occasional rattlesnake — which he has personally encountered and relocated. They also rely on cameras mounted off-trail to observe the animals occupying the Preserve. The resulting footage has included some surprises such as sightings of bobcat and coyote. It’s important to note that some of the animals seen in the Preserve aren’t necessarily native to the area, but are simply passing through.
Being surrounded by nature gives UNF a visual appeal not seen at many state universities. Smith acknowledges that those who helped build the campus did a great job incorporating the natural outdoors. He believes this allows the public to experience what Northeast Florida looked like before the land was developed.
Wetland Area in the Sawmill Slough PreserveAlthough the Preserve is considered a wetland habitat, it includes some small drier habitats also. These drier areas present a major concern — the threat of wildfires. To combat the possibility of a wildfire, two preventive techniques are used — firewise mowing and prescribed burns. Landscape personnel focus on areas in the Preserve that are identified as high fuel hazards to determine where to mow or initiate a prescribed burn.
“Prescribed burns and firewise mowing are maintenance techniques that lessen the impact if there were a wildfire,” Smith said. “The goal is to cut down on the amount of fuel that is present.” A major benefit of prescribed burns is the release of nutrients back into the ground that plants and animals thrive on. While mowing does not produce nutrients like burns do, it’s equally effective in preventing wildfires and sustaining the environment.
In addition to preservation techniques happening directly in the Preserve, the landscaping crews working in the core of campus are also doing their part to protect the Preserve. Horticulturist Rhonda Gracie and the groundskeeping team use native and Florida-friendly plants to decorate the grounds making sure the ecosystem is not disturbed. They also ensure the pollinator gardens on campus are chemical-free, so harmful chemicals don’t reach the Preserve during rain runoff.
While the Preserve is an integral part of UNF’s 50-year history, it’s also an integral part of Northeast Florida’s history. As the greater Jacksonville community experiences developmental growth, the Preserve will remain protected in perpetuity for all to observe and enjoy for both leisure and educational purposes for the next 50 years and well beyond.
According to Smith, areas such as the Preserve are few in Jacksonville making it the perfect getaway to unwind and appreciate the beauty of nature right here on campus.
To learn more about the Sawmill Slough Preserve, visit the Digital Archive curated by the UNF Institute of Environmental Research and Education
All photos provided courtesy of Justin M. Lemmons and the UNF Institute of Environmental Research and Education.