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Adrienne Smith: ‘Restoring natural habitats

(Week of April 14, 2011)

Did you know that beetles account for about 22 per cent of all named insects?

Adrienne Smith knew that.

The daughter of Mason Simpson, developer of such Indian River Shores communities as Sea Colony, the Carlton, and River Club at Carlton, also knew there are about 1.75 million total known species on planet Earth, including 270,000 plants.

And it’s the plants that seriously interest Smith, who later this month will receive a Master of Science degree in Environmental Horticulture.

Quite a mouthful, she agrees.  What will she then be called?

“A research scientist,” she says without hesitation, sprinkling the words with sunshine by delivering them with more than even the expected amount of youthful pride and passion.

The daughter of a developer hoping to devote her life to restoring “natural habitats to their original, historic ecosystems?”

She smiles broadly.  “Yes – and we’ve joked around with him saying, here I am building, and here I am a tree hugger saying I don’t want him to cut plants down…..” 

Her voice trails away, but the smile remains as she shrugs:  “He’s been very supportive.”

Smith has earned the right to be proud, according to University of Florida spokesperson Robin Koestoyo.  Koestoyo said that Smith’s experience includes “prestigious scholarship and fellowship awards, an internship with the premier foundation leading Florida Everglades restoration and scientific research experience conducted one-on-one alongside highly respected research professors.”

However, the pride doesn’t declare itself in what some have called “the arrogance of youth.” The petite Smith is equally small in her expression of self-awareness.

“I like to grow plants,” she says simply, “and to learn more about them.”

“There will always be something to discover,” she smiles. “Brussel sprouts” would not be among the heretofore delightful discoveries, she adds -- “but I do like broccoli.”

But what’s up with this plant thing in the first place?

She confesses an early interest in perhaps a career working with horses – but then flora got the best of fauna “because humans messed with it – we interfered.”

“The Everglades,” she adds in response to a raised eyebrow.

She talks briefly about how by the middle of the last century, much of central and southern Florida had been made much more habitable by humans through creating canals to handle the region’s heavy rains and subsequent flooding. Green then soon became gray as cement replaced grass, flowers and trees.  And while humans were at it, eyes widening and eyebrows rising, she notes that much of the state’s wading bird population was killed off “so women could wear hats.”

Increasing development from Orlando southwards also eventually resulted in fertilization runoff, in turn causing overgrowth of plants like “cattails choking out other native plants.”

Her very small hands clasp themselves in her lap, and without intending it to be a supplication, she adds that doing something about problems in the Everglades “would be my dream job.”

“I really want to work in Everglades restoration,” she repeats – but then sighs, unclasping hands as she notes the proposed cutting of both state and federal Everglades restoration funding. Governor Rick Scott’s budget calls for reducing Everglades spending from $50 million to $17 million – and that decreased from nearly $200 million about five years ago.

As the largest department of its kind away from UF’s main campus in Gainesville, the University of Florida (UF) Indian River Research and Education Center (UF/IRREC) near Fort Pierce has two botanical gardens open to the public and university-level courses taught by Dr. Sandra Wilson, a multiple national award recipient.

“I am grateful to have had an opportunity to study and do research at the University of Florida IRREC,” Adrienne says “I was able to live with my family and complete my master’s degree and conduct real research that will benefit the industry -- it’s really very fulfilling.”

Her studies were supported by garden club scholarships: $1,000 from the Garden Club of Indian River County and $2,000 from the Mary S. Compton Orlando Garden Club.

But what does her UF graduate research project, “The Growth and Development of Native Wildflowers In Varying Containerized Media” research project mean to the average person?

She smiles and resists the temptation to say pretty flowers around buildings, and instead says “ecological restoration.”

Adrienne says her future work will be to “restore natural habitats to their original, historic ecosystems.” This work is gaining importance as managers of large land tracts, such as ranches and state parks, witness the encroachment of invasive species and development, she says.

The State of Florida spends millions of dollars each year managing invasive species on public land. The Everglades exemplifies the cost of invasive species and the loss of natural resources. It is the world’s single largest, most ambitious and challenging ecological restoration effort, Adrienne says.

In addition to several teaching assistant positions, Adrienne says she worked as an Everglades summer intern with the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation and Florida Environmental Institute Inc. last summer. She and fellow students received a $2,000 stipend, and devoted 11 weeks to a full-time program in which each learned the history and ecology of what’s been called “the river of grass” – the name coming from the 1947 non-fiction book by Marjory Stoneman Douglas called The Everglades: River of Grass. Published the same year as the formal opening of Everglades National Park, the book called attention to even back then how the Everglades was being degraded.

Smith and her fellow students’ work from that internship is being edited and is expected to be published asserting a conclusion that “investment in any of the proposed restoration plans would result in a substantial return within 10 years and contribute up to $90 billion to the economy over 40 years.”

Adrienne says her UF graduate research will provide local growers with a successful technique to grow native wildflowers for commercial production. The work involved nine native wildflower species, and with all 180 total plants transplanted to fields in Fort Pierce.  The project will be evaluated in “about six months,” she says, and with the work expected to in turn be used by restoration professionals “in public areas that are wild – you know, like state parks.”

“The work is ongoing,” she smiles, “and we’re going to publish it.”

Are there areas on the barrier island she thinks ought to receive some ecological restoration? She hesitates a few seconds, and then brightens suddenly.

“Yes – that little forested area -- about 1-2 acres, just north of South Beach -- and there’s a family of bobcats in there, and it would be nice to restore it.” She stops, wondering if the decorum of an about to be master’s degree holder has been disturbed.

What’s that area like now?

Possibilities replacing decorum, she continues rapidly. “A big jumbled mess – it’s overgrown; it hasn’t been maintained.”  Actually, that area is just north of the house owned until recently by her father, the developer.

And as a plant person, surely she has some favorite and least favorite varieties?  But she hesitates, almost as if reluctant to name a favorite child.

Eventually she identifies the favorite plant as the Pineland Lantana “with little inconspicuous yellow flowers, and the leaves are pubescent,” she grins, informing the unaware that pubescent means “hairy.”

The Brazilian Pepper is among her least favorites “because it’s invasive,” ….oh, and poison ivy,” she laughs, “because I don’t want to get itchy.”

With this love of plants, does that mean she’s a vegetarian?

The headshaking side to side is emphatic.

“No,” she grins.  “I like my burgers too much.”