Preserving ecology hands-on
LAKE PLACID Elizabeth "Betsey" Boughton became an environmental biologist because she wanted to make a real difference in the world. Her job as program director and director of research at the MacArthur Agro-Ecology Research Center in Lake Placid has given her the opportunity to help shape the way Florida's diverse ecosystems are managed and preserved. Sitting in the rustic, deep red office building at the Buck Island Ranch, the 34- year-old scientist shared the importance of the work that takes place on the 10,500-acre working cattle ranch. The facility, which is a division of Archbold Expeditions, focuses on what role ranching plays in sustaining Florida's production of food, wildlife habitat, water supply and water quality.One of the main goals of MacArthur's long-term studies is to "integrate ecological research with ranch operations." "We see ranches as really important to maintaining biodiversity. Ranch land is a mosaic of many eco-communities: pastures, flat woods, wetlands, scrub," said Boughton, who is currently studying how grazing and fires affect wetlands. Data collected is used by the Environmental Protection Agency, South Florida Water Management District, and a wide variety of state and federal programs, including the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project. FRESP is a program developed in 2005 to improve water quality to Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries as a part of the greater Everglades restoration. "Much of my research takes place in the context of subtropical rangelands of the Northern Everglades," stated Boughton on the center's website www.maerc.org. Buck Island Ranch is owned by the John D. and Catherine I. MacArthur Foundation and leased for $1 a year to the research center. Its office is located at 300 Buck Island Ranch Road, five miles off State Rd. 70, down a dirt road that runs through orange groves, cedar stands, and across a narrow bridge that leads to prime ranch land. The ranch, whose cattle sales fund a part of the non-profit operation, is considered one of the top 20 cattle producers in the state. "We are also very interesting in how ranching is a compatible land use with a lot of grassland species," noted Boughton. Her research looks at how land use affects deer, bear, panthers, frogs and other Florida wildlife and, in turn, how those species' actions affect plant communities. The Michigan native came to Florida in 2002 to do her graduate research on wetlands management at Archbold Biological Station in Venus. While there she met an Australian graduate student named Raoul Boughton, who was assisting Reed Bowman with an ongoing Florida Scrub Jay study. The couple now lives in a Lake Placid stilt home, that they are remodeling themselves, with their two sons, Bryce and Russel, and their black lab, Jasper. "Being a mom is probably the most important thing that I do," remarked Boughton. She has found a balance in the satisfaction of her work and the joy of sharing her and her husband's love of nature and bird watching with their children. Boughton, who earned her PhD in conservation biology from the University of Central Florida, said that it was the learning environment at Archbold that encouraged her own sense of wonder. "They showed me how cool it was to do science," remarked the soft-spoken, athletic young women. "I have that curiosity that comes from being a scientist. I love that creative process..to ask a question and collect the data to answer that question." When Patrick Bolan left MacArthur in August of 2010 to become Director of Natural Resources at UCF, Boughton took over as the interim director, a position that became permanent in December of that year. "My favorite thing about working here is that we have a lot going on," she said of her research projects on biodiversity, wetland ecology, ecosystem services and water quality as well as the graduate students in training and MacArthur's educational eco-tours. Tours are available to visiting university groups, agricultural groups, conservationist, and school classes. The swamp buggy rides through pastures, prairies, woodlands and wetlands explore the ranches' unique habitats, organisms and ecology. With a staff of 10 researches and cattle operation employers, Boughton said the facility is looking for volunteers. If you can help or would like to schedule a tour, contact the office at 699-0242.