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Gainesville Wetland a Local Retreat

by Renee Bodine, NRCS Florida public affairs officer

Levy Prairie WRP in Alachua County, FLJust about 20 minutes south of downtown Gainesville, Fl., you can explore 1,060 acres of fresh water marsh, and while strolling down the six and a half mile levy trail you might just startle some wood ducks, catch a glimpse of a bobcat, see a Round-tailed Muskrat, and even spot a sandhill crane or bald eagle.

A new kiosk at the Levy Prairie Trailhead explains the ecological highlights of the marsh and painted bike stands sculpted into metal snakes teach visitors the differences between poisonous water moccasins and their look-alike harmless Florida water snakes. Four new benches found along the trail provide resting stops and a chance to watch wildlife, while signs next to the water warn of alligators and snakes lurking nearby. Walkers, mountain bikers, bird watchers and wildlife photographers are regulars.

But Levy Prairie wetland basin hasn’t always been a close recreation getaway.

In the late 60s, landowners built levees around the area, dug canals and continually kept it drained for their cattle operation. Then in 2001, the landowner decided to return the area to its natural state with the help of the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. WRP provides cost-share for that purpose. The program enables landowners to contract with USDA to establish permanent conservation easements to spare the land from development and restore previously drained wetlands.Levy Prairie WRP water control structures

NRCS specialists oversaw the restoration, repairing the levees and installing water control structures (photo, right) to give managers the ability to change the water levels and lessen downstream flooding. Re-flooding the marsh allowed native plants to get a foothold and return the system to an herbaceous marsh. In 2009, after the restoration was underway, Alachua County purchased the property for public use.

Kelly McPherson works for Alachua County on the Levy Prairie easementKelly McPherson, (photo left) Alachua County Environmental Protection land manager, works with Crenel Francis, NRCS Wetlands Reserve Program manager to continue restoration and manage the property. “The Levy Prairie is a mosaic of diverse native vegetation,” she said. McPherson visits the marsh weekly to monitor the water levels, vegetation, wildlife habitat and oversee installation of the recreation facilities. McPherson and her team go to county meetings concerning the Prairie, coordinate tours for schoolchildren and even pick up the trash. She said seeing a change during the last few years is a matter of paying attention to the details.

McPherson can describe how each season brings distinctive colors and unique wildlife to the Levy. In spring pink sprays of Decodon dot green grass fields, in summer light green Habenaria orchids open and in fall cadmium yellow bur marigolds can be seen next to deep purple asters. Birdwatchers head to the marsh to see sandhill cranes nesting in late winter and early spring; bald eagles can be viewed between May and October. Members of the Alachua Audubon have caught sight and sound of Willow Flycatchers.

The work isn’t done. Another leg of trail, perhaps a boardwalk is planned for a future phase. But there is plenty of time, as the Wetlands Reserve Program protects the Levy Prairie easement forever; giving Alachua County a natural retreat, close to home.

For more information about NRCS and the WRP program contact Roney Gutierrez, USDA NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Easement Programs, 352-338-9502.

See USDA Blog: Florida wetland provides sanctuary for people, wildlife