Meet Bob Nelson, Field Operations Manager for Domain 3

Bob Nelson has spent his four-decade career immersed in the life and landscapes of central Florida. He began by fighting fires for the Florida Forest Service and made the transition to ecological restoration work with the Nature Conservancy at the Disney Wilderness Preserve, south of Orlando, Florida. A sponge for scientific and practical knowledge, Nelson has absorbed everything from fire science to botany to invasive species ecology while overseeing his share of comprehensive land management projects. He’s looking forward to helping NEON tap into the ecological pulse of his home state as the newly minted manager of NEON’s sites in Florida and southern Georgia.

You worked for the Nature Conservancy on the Disney Wilderness Preserve?
I was there for almost 19 years. I started at the Disney project in early ’93. I went all the way through all of the restoration and permitting and all of the iterations of different staff and leadership. Just this year we finally met compliance on all of the restoration project.

It was the first large-scale, off-site wetland mitigation project in the country. It was a group effort between the Nature Conservancy and Disney. The idea is that you try to make no net loss on wetlands. You take wetlands that are already impacted in a natural area and you fix them so that [Walt] Disney Co. can impact the wetlands that they can’t avoid when they develop [Walt] Disney World.

We just finished that project. In fact we’re having a little celebration sometime in 2012, a kickoff celebration. I’m one of the few people that stayed through the entire project. I like to see something through.

Disney [Wilderness Preserve] is one of my sites for the NEON project [in the Southeast Domain]. We’re going to have one of the relocatable towers there. Everything that we collect at Ordway-Swisher [core site] and Jones Ecological Research Center we’re going to be collecting at Disney too.

What made you get into ecological restoration work?
I was bored with forestry. I worked for 18 years for the Florida Forest Service. Our whole goal at that time was to put out wildfires.

I got into land management when we got a state forest in the area and I took on the forest to manage. It’s now called the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. When this district got that forest there were only two people they put on it, two rangers, and I was the senior one. We would beg up people from all over the local area to help us get our prescribed fires done. But anything else, like running fences, we had to do that ourselves.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was with us on that project. Pretty much anything that was related to wildlife they took care of. That gave me an opportunity to learn that. I like to learn and know everything I’m involved in. That was the beginning of a new education.

From there I got an opportunity to get involved with the Disney Wilderness Preserve. I had never done restoration in my life. I had to learn all new habitats and brush up on my botany so I knew the plants, and then learn hydrology. We had to rebuild that large marsh. We built a dike around it because the water source was gone. We did several very cool things.

What’s the coolest thing you remember from your time at the wilderness preserve?
The coolest part is having been at a project long enough to see real environmental change. You’re there for what most people would call a career and you see the wetlands change from — this is a scientific term that we used in wetland restoration, we called them “all boogered up” — to a fully functional, beautiful wetland system.

Now, nothing’s static, it’s all dynamic. But you look at the general condition of the woods. We get that from really ancient surveyor reports. The earliest aerial photographs are from, say, the 1920’s and 1930’s. The survey reports we looked at are from the early 1800s. They didn’t have a whole lot of pines to use for witness trees because the pines were so thin. It was a grassy system much like a prairie, with the occasional pine tree poking up. That was my goal, to get to that.

We had an aggressive prescribed fire program in there. Through the use of fire we converted all those flatwoods to a healthy situation, from being overgrown and overstocked with pine trees to a pine savannah, which is what it’s supposed to be. Rather than something that’s overgrown with palmettos and shrubs, you’re looking at more of a grass-forb system with scattered pine trees.

We moved into a place that when you drove along the edge of the road you could see maybe 100 feet because it was all overgrown. Now you can look across it. You get a nice long perspective. We’ve got flat woods and scrub, and when you get to the point that looks like a solid wood, that’s a swamp. Those things you can see from a distance now and don’t have to fall in to find.

You’ve witnessed environmental change that you helped bring about. But with NEON you’re going to do something related and different.
NEON is a totally different approach. What we’re doing is documenting what’s happening without trying to make any change. I think that’s important too, so that people will really understand what’s going on. The idea is to provide the data, and not do a whole lot of analysis so that other folks can analyze the data and draw their own conclusions. And consistency is the bottom line for that. We have one set of protocols for the entire country.

What’s been the most challenging project in your career?
The newest one is always the most challenging. That would be this one [NEON], for lots of different reasons. Mainly I have to figure out exactly what it is we’re doing and learn the culture so that I can fit into it and function within it.

You’ve worked with university partners on facilitating research projects. But you don’t have a science degree.
I do not have a science degree. But at the same time, through osmosis, I think like a scientist. I’ve supervised science PhD’s throughout most of my career with the Nature Conservancy, and I managed the lab at Disney.

You’ve worked with a lot of scientists before. What are your thoughts on managing your own field staff as part of a large-scale science project?
The first 20 years of my career was mainly with operations type of people and not many scientists. The second 20 years of my career was with a lot of scientists and not so many operations people. I find that if you get those folks together, especially if you have an operations type person who’s managing the scientists, then you need to make sure the scientists get your point of view and that you have theirs. If you don’t already have both sides of the same coin working together then what you have is conflict.

My goal is to hire a mix of people. There’s definitely an opportunity here to put operations people with electronics background in the same category with biologists. I’m going to need all of those skills. Everybody’s got something they can teach you.

I’m excited about this. This is an opportunity for somebody who has already reinvented himself twice to go for a third career.

What do you think is going to be the most challenging part of your new job?
For me, the biggest challenge is going to be making sure the data are consistent. I have a communications role too.

One of my big projects for the last few years was invasive species. A lot of that requires really heavy marketing. Not just communication, but marketing. I’ve been trying to get people to understand what a real serious problem invasive species is. Something that’s been going on in the west for several years, we just started doing in the East. We call them CISMAs here. Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas. You have an area with people in land management having similar problems approaching them as a group.

What’s the peskiest invasive species that you’ve had to deal with?
We have a plant species here they call the Old World climbing fern that will just take over a wetland completely. That’s a big problem in the Everglades. It’s worse than kudzu. The scariest one is cogon grass. The only thing it won’t grow in is standing water. It covers almost the entire state.

Then there’s of course the Burmese python. Florida is a magnet for reptiles, people trying to keep these giant lizards as pets. When they get to a certain size they let ‘em go. There are estimates of 100,000 Burmese pythons in southwest Florida. These are breeding snakes that are bigger than alligators. You kind of have to put a stop to it.

Have you ever wrangled a python yourself?
No, not a python wrangler myself, I’m more of a plant guy. When pythons became a problem I was also over 55. I think there should be some sort of an age limit involved in that. I’m not about to wrestle a 200-pound snake at my age.

That’s a wise choice.
I’m glad you agree.

You’re Florida born and raised?
I am a Florida guy. I was born just outside of Gainesville, in Williston, and have spent most of my life in central Florida, where I live now.

You’ve lived and worked in the same ecosystem for much of your career. What do you love about it and what do you find most challenging about it?
What I love about it is that there’s some of it left. What I find the most challenging about it is that there’s only that little bit of it left. I love the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem, which is like a matrix system. The scrub fits in it, the marshes and the bottomland hardwoods and all of those different types of wetlands fit into that matrix system. The biggest problem is that people see it as just vacant land.

I saw a sign the other day when I was driving home. They’ve got these big chunks of sandhill just north of here that they’re selling for development. The sign says “475 acres; vacant land.” That’s a horrible way to put that. That’s not vacant, it’s full of stuff! It’s full of animals and insects and plants that are living there. There’s nothing vacant about it.

-Sandra Chung, Communication Specialist. Interview has been condensed and edited.