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For many, the direction one’s life takes can be boiled down to a single moment, sometimes at an early age. Such was the case for Andrew Gude, who became manager for the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife refuges about a year ago.
Gude’s known what he wanted to do since the ripe old age of 5 when, living in the small town of Blue Bell, Penn., an uncle showed up to take him on a fishing trip.
“That was the single-most defining moment in my life,” the middle-aged Gude recalled, explaining that the trip set him on a lifelong journey headed in the direction of conservation.
Gude came to Levy County September of last year, escaping the lifestyle of Washington D.C. where he worked on a team for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Gude says he’s proud of the work he did then, assisting in getting then-president George W. Bush to declare about 305 million acres of the Pacific as marine national monuments.
But, seven years in Washington took it’s toll, Gude admits.
“I was sick of the urban environment. I wanted to get back to the water.”
But Gude’s job doesn’t just include the water these days. Along with the management of hundreds of acres of ocean included in the CKNWR, comes the responsibility of restoring and conserving 52,000 acres of wetland and upland habitat in the LSNWR, a responsibility Gude says is made easier thanks to a hard-working staff.
“The success here is based on the staff, who are very knowledgeable and who’ve been here a long time.”
Gude says his focus for the refuge is restoring the land to what it once was, which is largely accomplished through planting and controlled burning.
“We’re basically trying to work ourselves out of a job,” Gude says. “And then it’s just management.
“One-hundred years from now, hopefully we’ll be able to accomplish what we set out to do, to restore the habitat.”
Gude says another aspect that has made his job easier is the conservation-minded people in the community.
“I was amazed at the community support, “ he says. “They really get it,” which, he explained, is not true of other parts of the country.
Gude says his management style always seeks a partnership with the community, which is easier when the community places value on its natural spaces. It’s something he said he began to understand in the years after college when he worked in various capacities, as a marine biologist, deliverer of sailboats or spear fisherman.
“I bring a perspective from tourism and a commercial angle,” he says, adding that spear fishing is still one of his favorite things to do.
“I like entering the food chain,” he says with a laugh. “Just because it’s exciting.”
With all the good things about his job as refuges manager, Gude says it’s not without its challenges—water being one of the biggest. The quality and quantity of water remain big factors in the success of conservation, he says. Rising seas are a threat to the cedar Key area, and issues stemming from record-breaking drought, such as was experienced until recently, can have drastic consequences for the environment.
As an example, Gude said that many of the birds that use the refuges were not to be found during the drought, instead opting for wetter conditions in the Everglades.
“This winter we’ll probably see a return,” Gude says.
Challenges aside, Gude says he’s optimistic about the future of conservation, not because humanity will collectively act in its own best interest, but because he has faith a few individuals will step forward to enact change.
“What I have faith in are local communities where individuals come together to affect positive change,” Gude wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “All change happens locally and then moves up.”
Gude says communities, through “structured dialogue,” have to come together and work with policy makers to make them understand what they place the most value in.
“We should all care,” Gude wrote. “We must all care; as we are individually and collectively responsible for our well-being and that of our children and future generations.” Doing otherwise, he writes, undermines that future. “Is that something we want to own?”