Student volunteering brings improvement to Nature Preserve

It’s 9 a.m. on a July morning. The temperature has already surpassed 85 degrees. Most people are huddling in their cool, air-conditioned havens, but not Ryan Vogel. The FIU student is already hard at work in FIU’s Nature Preserve, his shirt stained with perspiration and his black Labrador Oliver panting at his side as he directs the dumping of fresh soil for newly planted trees.

Since the beginning of the summer, Vogel and student volunteers have worked on maintaining and creating trails, planting new pine trees and removing invasive and exotic species. The student efforts are conducted in collaboration with FIU departments such as the Office of University Sustainability, Earth & Environment, Facilities and ARAMARK. Recently, with the construction at Panther Hall, the entrance to the Nature Preserve was relocated to the north side of the preserve.

Vogel, the manager of the Nature Preserve for the past two years, is the driving force behind the multiple changes coming to the preserve and the coordination of the FIU community volunteers who assist with the improvements. A current student, Vogel graduated in May 2012 with a bachelor’s in park management and is working to complete another bachelor’s in environmental studies.

“Ryan really cares about FIU, and in caring about FIU, he cares about maintaining the integrity of the campus and maintaining that tree canopy,” said Carrie Kashar, assistant director of the Office of University Sustainability. “He has a lot of passion, and that allows him to show people how much heart the Nature Preserve has.”

Sixty-five hundred years ago, FIU’s Modesto A. Maidique Campus was part of the Everglades drainage – marshland embedded with sawgrass and the occasional tree island. Today, the only trace of the original environment can be found in the preserve, a lasting remnant of the geological formations that lay below the marshland. The preserve was established in 1978 after Professor Jack Parker and two students in his environmental science class proposed developing an on-campus preserve with a native hardwood hammock.

“There aren’t many places in Miami-Dade County where even the soil is undisturbed,” said Vogel. “The vegetation and trees within the preserve are as old as FIU, but the soil and geologic formations are pristine Everglades, thousands of years old. We need to preserve that piece of history.”

Today, biology, environmental studies, entomology, ornithology and science education students utilize the Nature Preserve for research and studies. Student organizations such as the Yoga Club and the Karate Club often use the preserve for recreational activities.

“Two hundred forty-eight different species, nine of which are on the endangered list, would perish if the Nature Preserve was not maintained,” said Vogel. “So it’s really those student volunteers, the FIU students and community members, whose preservation work really makes the Nature Preserve what it is today.”

“It’s one of our responsibilities as human beings to preserve nature, and the Nature Preserve shows you that there are a lot of people that care about nature,” said Diana Sanchez, a senior philosophy major who has volunteered consistently at the preserve for more than a year. “I think if more people came to the preserve to help or to study or to read a book, they would come to love it like I do.”

Vogel coordinates between 15 to 25 volunteer days each semester. An average of 1,000 volunteers assist at the Nature Preserve annually.

Future plans are also in the works for establishing a jogging path and a butterfly garden.

To volunteer or receive a tour of the preserve, contact Vogel at or 917-364-5930.

— Emily Cochrane, intern