As night comes, a new harmony falls over the nature preserve. The humming of bugs used to dominate this area. Now they have a neighbor: frogs, croaking rambunctiously from the banks of the preserve’s wetland habitat. They are one of many new residents that call FIU home, thanks to the addition of the university’s wetland habitat.
FIU’s first wetland at Modesto A. Maidique Campus resembles a true Everglades habitat. It surrounds the majority of the south side of the preserve and wraps around to the front of the baseball clubhouse. Its presence has introduced an array of wildlife the university hasn’t seen before.
“For students that aren’t from Miami, I think it’s a really cool opportunity to understand our biodiversity,” said sophomore biology major Jacob Covas.
Plans to create the wetland began in 2016 with the planning of additional recreational and football fields. The university explored building the fields on the parking lot west of Riccardo Silva Stadium; however, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell says that option was not realistic.
“At certain times of the day and year, that road is highly traveled. We were worried about having students cross all the time,” Jessell said. “Secondly, we had all kinds of utilities that were located under the road. The costs of relocating those utilities are very, very high.”
That’s when the university looked at the possibility of building the fields across from the new recreation center. To do this, they would have to displace some wildlife, so Jessell came up with a plan to make up for it.
He recruited Philip Stoddard, a faculty zoologist with experience in campus pond restoration, to begin work on a new campus habitat. Stoddard assembled a team of faculty and wildlife experts to create a design.
“We have a strong environmental community of faculty, staff and students on campus deeply committed to environmental preservation and education. So when the first thing you hear is ‘Hey, they want to pave over the nature preserve for the football team,’ that’s kind of a tall ask. We figured out how to make it work,” Stoddard said.
Two regions of the preserve were removed. One was a patch of tropical hardwood hammock that had been almost entirely taken over by exotic invasive species, according to Stoddard. The other was a type of artificial pond called a borrow pit, a habitat formed from the mining of limestone to elevate surrounding buildings. The edges are shallow and then drop down to as deep as 30 feet in the center. Most of the ponds on campus are borrow pits. They do not have a natural equivalent in South Florida.
The new wetland habitat is larger, acre for acre, than the two lost areas combined. The changes to the preserve cost about $525,000, plus $75,000 for a bridge walkway across it.
“We recreated a pond that you’d find in nature. At any time of the year, you’ll have a natural slope coming into the pond. There are areas that are a millimeter deep and then get gradually deeper. This allows any shore bird or wading bird to find the depth they prefer,” Stoddard said.
The new pond also allows water lilies and other native flora to flourish on campus, according to Stoddard.
“Typically in the Everglades, water plants can grow all the way across the bottom. Water lilies are a good example. They may grow in water that’s waist deep or chest deep, but not in water that’s 20 feet deep. They can’t anchor on the bottom and get enough light to grow their shoots all the way to the top,” Stoddard said.
In the renovations, the nature preserve committee also gained a yearly budget of $80,000 for maintenance. The preserve previously relied on donations from faculty for its upkeep.
“You always hate to give up any green space, for sure. But at the end of the day, you look at how the recreational and practice fields fit in, and not only did we do better than a one-for-one swap for the land we took, we added a wonderful area that we never would have had,” Jessell said.
“There’s always a tradeoff, but when you look at the complete package, I think people will say FIU did it the right way, and not only did we deliver, but we over-delivered.”