Young Gainesville leaders educate community on wildlife conservation

Kathy Degrenier arranged books at her organization’s booth on Saturday, Sept. 30. “This is one of the many events that we try to do to raise awareness of springs and springs issues in the state of Florida,” Degrenier said. (Caitlyn Schiffer/WUFT News)

When it comes to the climate, everyone is on the roster.

“Everyone has a role to play in one way or another,” said Chris Landaeta, an intern at Current Problems, a nonprofit organization that specializes in freshwater debris removal.

Landaeta was among several educators and organizations at the Young Leaders for Wild Florida Fall Fest held at the 4th Ave Food Park on Saturday. The young adults stood at their assigned booths and told people about the issues harming the ecosystem, such as invasive species, groundwater contamination and education on native species.

The participating organizations all shared the same purpose: to sustain and preserve the beauty of north central Florida.

Young Leaders members Wes Melker, 17, Preston Haller,17, and Alvin Chun, 18, a first-year student at UF, displayed their collective fossils, including dugong bones, ancient manatee bones and stones, to educate others on the vitality of their assistance to the local environment.

Wes Melker, Alvin Chun, and Preston Haller showcase their findings on the future of wildlife conservation on Saturday, Sept. 30. Preston Haller can be seen holding his favorite agatized coral geode. (Caitlyn Schiffer/WUFT News)

“When you start focusing on how to keep your one small corner of the world safe and how to help the people in your area, it becomes much easier to actually make noticeable changes within your own community,” Chun said.

Haller said an agatized coral geode, a rare type of mineralized fossil, is his “prized possession.” Melker added that getting involved and finding rocks like this one is as simple as going outside.

“Walking outside, that’s like the first thing you can do to help,” Melker said. “Just going on a walk and checking out the trails. That’s the first step.”

Mira Lemstron, 17, a volunteer for Young Leaders for Wild Florida, is a Gainesville High School student who attended the two-week summer camp to expand her knowledge and field experience on topics such as invasive species.

A close-up of Mira Lemstron’s ladybug face paint. “Promoting it in this way not only teaches people about what are invasive species in a fun way with face paint, but also they might consider joining our camp and experience what they’re most passionate about,” Lemstron said. (Caitlyn Schiffer/WUFT News)

Invasive species, such as coral ardisia, kudzu, apple snails, lionfish and the Burmese python, are top predators to many of Florida’s native species and pose a massive problem in the Florida Everglades, as they eat native plants and animals.

Coral ardisia is found in the woods and forests of Florida and has an 80 to 90% germination rate, the average number of seeds that will sprout in a certain amount of time.

“If you pull it and the berries drop, it’s almost certain that new plants will sprout,” Lemstron said.

While there are animals that share similarities with the Burmese python, not all of them present a danger. In fact, they play a key role in our ecosystem.

As a long crimson serpentine wrapped itself around Deborah Martin, a staff member of Ashton Biological Preserve, she discussed the importance of snakes and how “everything fills a niche in the world.”

Deborah Martin, with Ashton Biological Preserve, holds a crimson serpentine on Saturday, Sept 30. 2023. Despite its threatening features, the reptile serves a vital purpose in the ecosystem. (Caitlyn Schiffer/WUFT News)

Reptiles play many roles. Venomous snakes are used for cancer research, and copperhead venom is one of the leading treatments for breast cancer.

Despite the general belief that they are harmful rather than good, Martin vouched for the reptiles.

“Snakes are very important, so we’re trying to change that perception,” Martin said. “If you lose one, everything crumbles.”

Besides these slithering creatures, feathered acrobats of the sky play an equally important role in the animal kingdom.

Zion Szot, a fourth-year biology major at the University of Florida, is an intern at the Alachua Audubon Society and works to attract more native birds to help all levels of ecology.

A bird such as the American kestrel, North America’s smallest falcon, is running out of places to nest because they rely on nest cavities left behind by other birds, especially in forests, which are being cut down for agriculture, said Szot.

Szot is working with the organization to provide conservation efforts, including building nesting boxes for the breeding season and catching and tracking American kestre.

“Learning about birds can help with your knowledge and your experience of enjoying the earth and also with the environment itself,” Szot said.

The Alachua Conservation Trust booth provided information pamphlets on various nature preserves and a donation box. “Conservation is a great field for partnership and collaboration as well as community engagement,” said events coordinator Emma Emaolmos on Saturday, Sept 30, 2023. (Caitlyn Schiffer/WUFT News)

Kathy Degrenier, a member of Florida Springs Institute, a nonprofit organization that educates the public on Florida Springs and what threatens its existence, said she has been involved in conservation her whole life.

She said she started her career working for The International Ecotourism Society which promotes more sustainable practices in tourism. Now semi-retired, she said she is making it her mission to conserve the springs of Alachua County.

“They’re really the lifeblood of the state,” Degrenier said regarding the vitality of Florida’s natural springs, like Ginnie and Ichetucknee Springs.

The springs are a measure of how well the aquifer, a body of rock and sediment that holds groundwater, is doing and how much it’s being recharged.

About 90% of the population receives water from the aquifer.

These are sensitive ecosystems, and Degrenier recommends safe landscaping practices and following fertilizing rules as advised by Florida-friendly yards.

The shift in temperature as climate change worsens could devastate the springs. The springs’ constant temperature is 72 degrees, and extensive saltwater intrusion can occur, making the water undrinkable when saltwater mixes with freshwater.

While many feel there is not enough they can do to save the environment, these teens and volunteers demonstrate that the solution starts with each individual.

“The problem is ultimately only as bad as you let it be,” Chun said. “As long as we convince enough people that their individual action is not insignificant, they have an actual influence.”

About Caitlyn Schiffer

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

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