Leveraging campus natural areas for urban ecology research, education and management
The University of Central Florida (UCF) is a 1,415-acre urban campus, of which 876 acres (62%) is undeveloped green space that includes 337-acres (24%) of upland and wetland conservation easements, and an additional 539-acres (38%) of natural areas that have long-term preservation commitments. During the past decade, we have integrated opportunities for student engagement and education into campus natural resource management. Strategies have included: 1. Conserving biodiversity within upland and wetland communities; 2. Monitoring to capture habitat changes through time; 3. Developing approaches to capitalize on research and educational opportunities; 4. Improving recreational and aesthetic benefits of conservation lands; and, 5. Taking measures to ensure the conservation of a viable network of natural lands that incorporates ecological principles of connectivity, and avoids further fragmentation where possible. This study assessed the success of leveraging campus natural areas to support the University’s mission and goals of increasing partnerships and offering high-quality undergraduate education, while supporting sustainability of regional urban ecological systems.
Our results show that implemented strategies have contributed to the University’s mission and goals, and have increased ecological diversity of species and habitats within the campus natural areas. In support of UCF’s goals, we have increased the number of partnerships and the quantity of volunteers each year. We have completed 62 urban ecology research projects with 163 students since 2008, and have increased the number of research projects and classes that use campus natural lands. Ecological systems have responded positively to prescribed fire, invasive species removal, and restoration actions. The number of federally-threatened Gopher Tortoises have increased by 66% since 2009, from 47 to 78 individuals, within managed lands. UCF’s urban forest sequestered carbon and pollutants by 4,955 metric tons and 16,284 kg/year, respectively. These results demonstrate that integrating campus natural land management with educational and research opportunities, increases the value of these lands as an essential part of the academic facilities of a university campus.