What do Brevard’s Enchanted Forest, Barrier Island Sanctuary and Turkey Creek Sanctuary have in common? They are among the jewels that Titusville resident and University of Central Florida professor Ross Hinkle has helped protect for future generations of Floridians.
Hinkle, who specializes in conservation biology, was one of the founding members of the Selection and Management Committee, the county commission-appointed scientific advisory group that helps the EELs program select land to purchase and preserve.
EELs (Environmentally Endangered Lands) is a voter-approved program established in 1990 to protect the natural habitats of Brevard County by “acquiring environmentally sensitive lands for conservation, passive recreation, and environmental education.” Residents voted to tax themselves up to $55 million for the acquisition and maintenance of Brevard’s natural areas, and in 2004 the residents reaffirmed that commitment by passing another referendum for additional funds.
“To save all that land and preserve natural Brevard and natural Florida for future generations, that’s definitely one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of,” Hinkle said. He served as the committee’s chairman for almost 20 years and today serves at the vice-chair.
Hinkle is a rare breed. Not only has he dedicated his life to studying and improving our understanding of the natural environment in Florida, he’s also an advocate for its preservation and a regular visitor to many of the areas he’s helped preserve.
When he isn’t mentoring graduate students in the area of conservation biology — two of whom are from Merritt Island — he’s meeting with fellow members of the EELs committee to plan for purchases and work with the county on preservation of more than 20,000 acres of biological diversity through responsible stewardship. And when he’s done with work, you can find him bird watching at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or kayaking in the lagoon.
“You can do research and publish about conservation, but if you can participate in a way that helps preserve those natural areas, that’s really something,” Hinkle said.
So why is this Greeneville, Tenn., native who grew up on a tobacco farm in the mountains of eastern Tennessee so passionate about natural Florida?
“It’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to touch it, smell it, know it,” he said. “I want our children and their children to be able to experience natural Florida and not just read about it in a book.”
Although Hinkle stepped down to become vice chair of the committee in 2012 after he accepted the position of vice provost and dean of the college of graduate studies, his commitment hasn’t wavered. His work at UCF helps ensure future generations of scientists will also realize the impact their work can have on daily life. Hinkle is responsible for ensuring graduate students at UCF get a comprehensive academic education and hands-on experience where possible that will prepare them to be leaders in their fields.
“I think UCF and specifically the biology program help deliver the message that you can’t do research in a vacuum,” Hinkle said. “You have to apply it and often that application has more meaning if it helps your community. I feel lucky to be able to do that for UCF and for Brevard County. There’s nothing more satisfying.”