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Volunteers tackle litter and invasive species along Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail in conservation effort

Plastic bottles, soda cans and a car headlight were just some of the items that sisters Joan McEntee and Pat Troast found while cleaning up a small stretch of the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne state trail.

“I just really hate litter,” McEntee said.

McEntee and Troast were among the 12-person brigade of volunteers who gathered at the Rochelle trailhead on Feb. 1. Led by assistant Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park manager Joy Cotton, these volunteers were tasked with collecting trash and removing non native species.

“A healthy environment is a healthy us,” Cotton said.

Since 2021, the state government has allocated more than $300 million to the Florida State Parks. It approved an additional $37 million last year for the maintenance and repairs the state parks demand.

As a part of this comprehensive effort, the Florida State Parks Foundation and Live Wildly mobilized volunteers for an “Explore the Corridor week.". From Jan. 27 to Feb. 4, this initiative targeted 40 state parks from the Florida Panhandle down to Martin County in South Florida. These events aimed to address the aesthetic needs of the areas and highlight the ongoing commitment to preserving Florida’s nature.

Within the scope of this initiative lies the Gainesville-Hawthorne state trail, a historic railbed turned greenway. This trail acts as a haven for native plants and wildlife, drawing in both locals and visitors with its natural beauty and diversity.

Despite the surrounding community’s efforts to maintain cleanliness around the trail, Cotton said that the area still faces challenges from litter blown in from the nearby highway and an invasive onslaught of coral ardisia.

Characterized by its dark glossy leaves and bright red berries, coral ardisia is best known for its ability to outcompete native flora, ultimately disrupting local ecosystems.

“They’re very pretty,” Cotton said. “But, they are also really bad for this environment.”

After filling several trash bags and plastic buckets, volunteers gathered to celebrate their efforts and the positive impact they had made.

Gretchen Horton, a retiree from southern Vermont, said she spends a lot of time in the state parks and had been looking for a way to give back.

“I think we did a very good job,” Horton said. “And, I’m happy I got to be a part of that.”

Cassandra is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing