Recognizing Bob Simons

    Bob Simons served on the Board of the Alachua Audubon Society (AAS) for over 52 years, providing so much wisdom, expertise and energy to the organization. He was the leading advocate for their conservation initiatives. His knowledge of ecosystems as a professional forester was invaluable in providing expert guidance to AAS and to so many other organizations.
     Bob earned his BS in forestry from the University of Florida and then went to North Carolina State to work on a PhD. Before he could finish, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam war. After serving Bob returned to North Carolina State to work on a variety of projects. He then returned to Gainesville and, with his wife Erika, began attending AAS field trips to learn bird identification from experts like John Hintermister and was quickly invited to join the board of directors. In the early 1970s, the Florida legislature created the Environmentally Endangered Lands program (the forerunner of the CARL and Florida Forever programs). O’Leno State Park and Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park had already been purchased and preserved and the largest ecologically sensitive tract in the county that Bob believed needed protection was San Felasco. Bob recalls mapping and assessing the ten parcels that were privately owned and working with the landowners to convince them to sell their land to the state. Bob and Helen Hood, the President of Alachua Audubon in the 1970s, doggedly pursued state acquisition of the land. For over two years, Bob worked on the acquisition of the ten parcels that now comprise San Felasco. He attended legislative and cabinet meetings in Tallahassee to convince the state to buy the land, and through the hard work and commitment of Bob and many others, San Felasco State Park was created. This is surely one of Bob’s biggest legacies, and Alachua Audubon’s as well, but Bob continued to contribute to conservation for many more decades to come.
     Following this success, Bob volunteered with the Florida Defenders of the Environment and was involved in advocating for the acquisition of McLeod Ranch, the River Rise section of O’Leno State Park. He also worked tirelessly on the acquisition of Silver Springs State Park. His conservation involvement stretched across the state, where he was involved in efforts to convince the state to purchase Tosohatchee Preserve east of Orlando, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in south Florida and Pinhook Swamp which connects Osceola State Forest and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
     Bob noted that once forest managers realized that he was willing to provide expert advice free of charge, he was invited to participate on a number of advisory boards. He served on the Suwanee River Advisory Board and on a Forestry Forum for the state to develop best management practices for state forests. Before Bob began advising state and federal foresters, they resisted conducting growing season burns, although these are one of the most effective measures to improve forests and wildlife habitat. As a forester, land manager and ecologist, Bob helped educate and inform the receptive national forest managers, and the management of those forests notably changed. Management considerations for snags and stumps, prescribed fire, site preparation and ecosystem maintenance all improved, as did habitat quality, helping a broad spectrum of native species.
     Bob influenced the careers of many UF students by leading field trips for Dr. Archie Carr and assisting UF graduate students in identifying field sites for their research. An untold number of those students went on to become conservation professionals. He took various academic botanists, such as Dr. Robert Godfrey and Dr. Daniel Ward, to see rare and unusual plants so that they could document their range and, consequently, Bob is mentioned in several published floras of Florida. As a forestry consultant for The Nature Conservancy, he identified natural areas for potential purchase. He nominated many of the big trees that are included in the FL Division of Forestry’s champion tree database. In Alachua County, Bob was involved in a comprehensive inventory of natural areas and served for many years, from its inception, on the Land Conservation Board for Alachua County, helping identify natural areas to purchase for conservation. He also served for many years on the City of Gainesville’s Tree Advisory Board.
    In the 1990s, Bob became involved in a project to protect Southeastern American Kestrels with Dr. John Smallwood. With funding from the state, over 300 kestrel next boxes were erected and resulted in an increase in the kestrel population. Among the key findings of the project were that fire ants were the largest threat to nesting success of the species and that kestrels require large tracts of approximately 1000 acres of open land to successfully reproduce. Over the last 20 years, Bob continued the kestrel nesting project and installed more than 100 kestrel boxes in suitable habitat. Following the initiation of the AAS internship program, Bob gave many interns a high-quality conservation experience by sharing the kestrel nest box program. During the pandemic, he and his wife, Erika, singlehandedly prepared the nest boxes for nesting and monitored nesting success.
     Bob reviewed numerous management plans for public lands and provided input on behalf of AAS. He read voluminous documents related to the Plum Creek plans for development in east Gainesville and led Alachua Audubon’s opposition to their plans, testifying at meetings and providing input. When DEP advanced a proposal ten years ago to initiate grazing, timbering and hunting on state park lands, Bob was the first to volunteer to represent Alachua Audubon on the Protect Payne’s Prairie coalition that included membership from the Sierra Club, the Friends of Payne’s Prairie, Alachua Conservation Trust and the Gainesville Garden Club. Three years ago when Florida Power and Light asked for guidance in planting native plants and trees on their solar farms in Putnam County, Bob provided his expertise. This earned AAS a grant from FP&L for a telescoping monitor and field camera for Bob’s Southeastern American Kestrels nest box project. When the County Commission was considering closing part of the Barr Hammock trail at the request of a local landowner, Bob advocated to the county to keep the trail open, including taking Commissioner Charles Chestnut to the preserve to demonstrate the negative impacts that trail closure would have caused. Thanks to Bob and other trail advocates, the Barr Hammock trail has remained open and fully accessible.
     One of Bob’s good friends, Jim Buckner, recently said: “One reason, and a significant one, that Bob is so successful in influencing land managers on public, and some private, lands in Florida, is his easy-going personality. People readily feel comfortable with him. He never comes across as being judgmental or condescending. He is demonstrably knowledgeable and experienced, but he is also nice, friendly, intelligent, and kind. He is modest to a fault. Bob is generous, wise, and an outstanding mentor. He even has a great sense of humor. He is well-known, well-liked, and well-respected, particularly in forestry and conservation circles. But on top of all that, he is not perfect – which to the rest of us mortals fortunate enough to know him well, probably makes him seem . . . just about perfect”.
     Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida, met Bob in her early years with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She recently stated, “For more than 50 years, Bob Simons has been a force of, and for, nature in Alachua County, always willing to lend his hands and recruit others to a worthy conservation cause. While his commitment to science is a hallmark of his leadership, his legacy lies in the community he has helped build, helping others find a place in, and make their own unique contribution to, conservation. These generations of birds, birders and conservationists stewarded by Bob are the true measure of his outsized impact on Alachua County natural resources. He is one of the most modest conservation giants I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from.”
      Alachua Audubon is so very grateful to Bob for his more than five decades of involvement with our organization and everything that he accomplished to preserve and protect natural areas. Alachua Audubon enjoys a strong reputation in the Gainesville conservation community and is a respected conservation advocate, and that is, in large part, due to the contributions of Bob Simons.

To watch a 2024 interview with Bob on our YouTube channel, click on the following link.
Bob Simons interview