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Volunteers at Paynes Prairie Preserve collect trash and nonnative plants

Pat Troast, 71, and Joan McEntee, 73, stood by one of the entrances to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Troast dug her hands into the front pockets of her navy jeans. McEntee unzipped her jacket as the sunlight filtered through the tree cover.

The sisters talked with members of the 12-person group who wandered down the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, sharing stories about the trash they collected over the previous two hours.

“The one interesting thing on the way out was a headlight in a stream,” McEntee said, smiling at Troast. “Not sure how that got there.”

Troast said she was reminded of the cleanups she did in the Northeast before both sisters retired and moved to Florida.

“We did this up in New Jersey,” Troast said. “It’s fun.”

They volunteered to collect trash and nonnative species along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail and Paynes Prairie State Park as a part of the “Explore the Corridor Week.”

The Florida State Parks Foundation, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation and Live Wildly organized the event. The statewide initiative, taking place from Jan. 27 to Feb. 4, caters to the needs of each of the 40 state parks that make up the Wildlife Corridor.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park separates Gainesville from Micanopy. Eight trails run through the 23,000 acres, cutting through mud, swamp water and shrubs. It houses plants that can be threatened by the introduction of nonnative plants and animals.

Joy Cotton, the assistant park manager of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, led the cleanup. She told the volunteers to target the Coral Ardisia.

The small plant with dark green leaves produces clumps of crimson red berries. The seeds in the pea-sized berry spread the nonnative species throughout the park and Florida.

“They look gorgeous,” Cotton, 46, said. “They’re very pretty. They’re a nice ornamental in your yard, but the opposite side of that is it can spread and take over. It competes with the native plants.”

Because the plants can use the resources other native plants need, the Coral Ardisia poses a threat. Black trash bags of the plant sat near the buckets of plastic waste and beer cans.

Cotton said the neighboring community kept the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail relatively clean. But even a single piece of trash can hurt the park’s wildlife.

“Everything is so important in the ecosystem down to the microbiomes below the surface,” she said. “If that is polluted, it can affect the animals that live above ground and underground.”

The state government has given $300 million to the Florida State Parks since 2021, according to the Florida State Parks Foundation. For this fiscal year, the Florida Legislature approved $37 million for the maintenance and repairs of the state parks.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor, which includes Paynes Prairie State Park, ensures a way for animals to navigate throughout the state without dodging semitrucks or cars.

Tim Linafelt, the director of communications at the Florida State Parks Foundation, said the main goal of “Explore the Corridor Week” was to educate Floridians because most of the wildlife corridor is inaccessible to humans.

“State parks are accessible to the public,” he said. “People can be in these places that are a part of the wildlife corridor.”

The trails that weave through the corridor allow visitors to participate in recreational activities such as biking, horseback riding and hiking. These activities attract tourists and residents alike.

Jada Pallagi, a health education student at the University of Florida, said she was familiar with environmental cleanups from her volunteer experience near Fort Lauderdale. She said she felt welcome by the other volunteers.

“There was some fun stuff,” Pallagi, 21, laughed. “A headlight in the river, some pieces of cars, tires, stuff like that.”

She said she knew she was one of the youngest adults there, but the group was welcoming.

“I think I’m definitely going to come out to more of these,” she said. “All of it was really fun to participate in, and it’s a really fun community. Everyone that I met here was really nice.”

Gretchen Horton, 66, is a retiree from southern Vermont, but she said she felt drawn to events like this.

“I’ve been looking for volunteer opportunities,” she said. “This seemed right up my alley.”

Horton said it was a way to meet people who carried the same beliefs as her

“I’m glad to be a part of it,” she said. “I think it’s important. It’s a way to help out wherever I can.”

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