Local News

Natural passion

Carla Sherwin, park services specialist at Highlands Hammock State Park, has been fascinated with the environment for most of her life.

Life growing up on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in rural Illinois fostered her interest in nature. She wanted to do something with the environment and, an added plus, she liked being outdoors.

She taught art in the 1970s and English as a Second Language in Mexico in the 1980s before returning to school in 1988 for a second bachelor’s degree, this one in botany, from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Sherwin was an intern at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation shortly after graduation.

“There was a very strong environmental community at work in that area,” she remembered.

Later, she accepted a position with the Department of Natural Resources, and developed a Volunteer Trail Guide Program for the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center and Little Pine Island State Preserves.

Her next position was a limited program on estuary protection at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples.

Sherwin returned to Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves as an environmental specialist.

“I’ve truly enjoyed my career. My experience has been both coastal and inland, and I’ve worked to improve public understanding of Florida’s natural resources through guided nature walks, estuary wading trips, kayak paddles, and public outreach campaigns on fire ecology and exotic, invasive species,” she said.

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Transferring to Highlands Hammock State Park in 2007, Sherwin has since had many responsibilities.

As a park ranger from fall 2007 to January 2013, Sherwin was responsible for opening and closing the park. She enjoyed those times because the best opportunities to see wildlife are early in the morning and at dusk.

Sherwin has assisted with prescribed burns, exotic-plant removal and trail maintenance and conducted campfire programs, tram tours, nature walks and special programs for youth.

She is currently focused on the recruitment and coordination of park volunteers.

Working with the Friends of Highlands Hammock State Park, a Citizen Support Organization, she coordinates special events.

Key to the park’s continued growth, the Friends sponsor many fundraising activities that provide invaluable support to the park.

Arin Morton, treasurer on the Friends board, said Sherwin is very “detail-oriented, doing everything she can to make HHSP (the park) an enjoyable place for visitors, volunteers and staff.”

She is passionate when she speaks about the state park and the natural resources Florida has to offer.

“I don’t think that most people realize how truly unique Florida is,” she said. “It is this great, long peninsula jutting into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and the climate is buffered by these waters. Consequently, there is an abundance and diversity of ecosystems supporting a variety of vegetation and wildlife.”

Sherwin saw her first Florida panther in the wild at Highlands Hammock, and sees evidence that black bears have passed through the park, though she has yet to see one.

“It’s nice to know that bears and panthers still tread softly through the Hammock on their travels,” she said.

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Sherwin enjoys living in rural Arcadia with her husband of 27 years. In addition to treasuring her time at home, Sherwin enjoys bicycling, traveling and attending art shows and regional theater productions.

Sherwin participated in a Frog Watch Amphibian Monitoring Program in Lee County for seven years. She has served as a judge for the Sun Region Odyssey of the Mind tournaments and on the board of the Film Society of Southwest Florida, a group dedicated to showing independent and foreign films at the Lee County Alliance of Art.

Looking back over her career, Sherwin said: “My greatest reward has been advancing resource appreciation through connecting people to Florida’s unique ecosystems.”

Brenda Broder, a park ranger, said she has learned quite a bit from Sherwin.

“Carla and I work heavily on the details for visitor services, from everything to trash-removal to campsite management; there is so much to do to,” she said.

The consummate botanist and naturalist, Sherwin shares another philosophy on Florida’s unique ecosystem: “It’s really important for people that move to Florida to understand that fire and water are the two driving forces of nature that formed this landscape. The vegetation evolved in the presence of both elements and needs to burn to stay healthy because they are fire-dependent.”