Audubon and the Florida Park Service have signed a historic agreement for Audubon to fund the construction of a $420,000 “bunkhouse” on the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (Preserve). The 58,000-acre Preserve conserves the largest remaining tract of Florida’s unique Dry Prairie Ecosystem and is in a remote corner of Okeechobee County. Limited housing makes it hard for the Preserve to host visiting workers, researchers, and fire crews, and this bunkhouse will help fill that large void to give more people access to this ecological treasure.
Why is Audubon making this infrastructure investment? It is a story 76 years in the making.
Audubon hired our first full-time warden to patrol the Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Prairie region in 1936. Marvin Chandler was the first of four Chandler family members who worked for Audubon for the next 55 years. His nephew, Rod Chandler, told Audubon in the 1970s that the prairies were being plowed under by people and needed to be conserved as soon as possible for future generations of plants, wildlife, and people.
Dry prairies occupy very flat areas and are one of the most diverse plant communities in North America. The prairies of central Florida host a unique suite of birds that includes the Florida Sandhill Crane, Audubon's Crested Caracara, Florida Burrowing Owl, Florida Mottled Duck, and one of the nation’s most endangered birds, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. The extensive wetland complexes host a variety of wading and water birds, and the Preserve's subpopulation of breeding Florida Grasshopper Sparrows is one of six known in the world.
Audubon heeded the call and bought the 7,300-acre Ordway-Whittell Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary in 1980, named for the two foundations that donated the money. In 1997, we helped convince the state to buy the Latt-Maxcy property next to our Sanctuary – then the largest tract of remaining prairie and now the Preserve. With that accomplishment, we sold the Sanctuary to the state to be part of the Preserve and used the proceeds to set up a permanent endowment fund that supports ongoing Audubon work in the region, as well as special projects on the Preserve.
The six Florida State Park managers of the Preserve all agreed the bunkhouse was a priority and have let the fund grow until now, and we finally have enough money to build it. Audubon and the Florida Park Service are elated to have reached this point and be able to make such a fundamental contribution to the Preserve and dry prairie ecosystem.
“The new bunkhouse is a welcome and needed addition to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, and we’re thankful to our partners at Audubon for their generosity,” said Florida State Parks Director Chuck Hatcher. “The bunkhouse will serve to house wildlife surveyors whose work begins before dawn, prescribed fire teams who are traveling in from out of town, and Americorps members who graciously volunteer their time and energy to the park.”
Audubon’s Paul Gray, PhD, Everglades Science Coordinator, says, “Since protecting the Preserve, the Florida Park Service has been doing an exceptional job of managing and restoring this piece of ‘The Real Florida.’ And to have gotten to this next milestone in Dry Prairie conservation, which has been a uniquely Audubon effort, is immeasurably rewarding.”