The green thumbs behind UCF's blooming campus
A quiet war is being waged underfoot.
Its battlefields stretch across 1,500 acres, and its combatants are the plants and trees, the birds and bees, the bugs large and small that are constantly struggling for survival. Though the skirmishes are slow and often invisible to the naked eye, the implications of these campaigns affect all of us who walk below the leafy boughs and manicured greenery of UCF.
At the vanguard of this mighty struggle are the 65 men and women of UCF Landscape and Natural Resources, a diverse crew of do-gooders dedicated to the stewardship and maintenance of the campus environment. Their mission is manifold: To protect UCF's three main land management zones from invasive species, overgrowth and fires; to maintain the 10 artificial and natural pond systems that comprise the main campus' watershed; and to ensure that the many ecosystems on campus remain both beautiful and enjoyable.
One of the generals in this long-running war is Alaina Bernard, the assistant director of LNR. Her services were commissioned 12 years ago during a period when wildfires swept unchecked through Central Florida. Her goal? To combat the growing threat that fire posed to the UCF environment.
"We were getting a lot of wildfires on campus," Bernard said. "We had about 11 in a three-year period. There became an interest in prescribed fire, which is one of the tools to mitigate wildfires. When I was in graduate school, my first primary goal was to develop a prescribed burn program and figure out how we would even do it in an urban environment."
The prescribed burn plan eventually developed into a larger land-management plan that UCF follows today. In this new paradigm, the fires she once labored to manage have become one of her greatest tools.
"We do a lot of invasive management as part of our work. There's a lot of non-native species that like to sneak into these lands if you don't manage them properly, but in an urban framework it's very hard to apply fire at the correct intervals, which is really nature's way of supporting these biotic communities," Bernard said.
When they aren't snuffing out fires or burning away invidious pests, the members of LNR are concerned with the aesthetic intricacies of the environment. Assistant director Chris Kennedy is a landscape architect; under his purview are the pathways, plantings and areas of tree-lined shade that crisscross campus. Like a keen-eyed strategist, he determines how best to cultivate the campus' aesthetic appearance and the needs of its students as they travel across its many acres of land.
"There have been studies done across all campuses that [say] up to 60 percent of students select the university they're going to go to based on the way the campus looks," Kennedy said. "The first impression counts. A good experience requires space, it requires shade, it requires all these aesthetic qualities that we're concerned with."
Much of Kennedy's work is concerned with pathways and the flow of foot traffic across campus. Is a pathway wide enough to accommodate all its users? Does it have sufficient shade? Is it far enough from the root systems of trees, which will lift up and damage concrete?
In addition to maintaining the aesthetic unity of campus, Kennedy ensures that there is sufficient groundwater to irrigate the local environment. The stormwater cycle drains into 10 basins that are under control of the St. John's Water Management District. Kennedy also affirms that construction on campus meets district guidelines.
"We carry permits for permeous and impermeous use," he said. "Permeous is anything that water can penetrate; impermeous is something like a parking lot, a building, something that's going to shed water somewhere other than where a raindrop lands. The more impermeous [areas] you have, the more you have to account for where it goes. Too much impermeous work leads to flooding and erosion. It's our job to always maintain a balance between the two."
If Bernard and Kennedy are the brains of the LNR, then men like Daniel Smith, one of the organization's 35 groundskeepers, are its hands and eyes. Each morning, just after sunrise, Smith hops into his green cart to patrol the area between Parking Information and the Reflecting Pond, keeping its pathways impeccable and clear from debris.
"Each area has different priority levels. Priority level one is mine: Anything less than the best is missing the mark. You have to have a mindset of excellence to get the result they're looking for. In my experience, if you're not shooting for perfection, [then] you're falling short," Smith said.
Workers like Smith supply just one fraction of the thousands of man hours of labor necessary to maintain the campus environment. Without them, it would be only a matter of time before UCF was consumed by the wild and untamed state of nature from whence it sprang.
Bernard Wilchusky is the Editor-in-Chief for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @cameradudeman or email him at BernardW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.