Inspiring Okeechobee… Dr. Gray works hard to preserve natural habitats

OKEECHOBEE — Dr. Paul Gray has made the health of Lake Okeechobee and the birds that call it home his life’s work. Dr. Gray is originally from the Kansas City, Mo., area and began his college career at the University of Missouri. Afterward, he obtained his master’s degree at Texas Tech. Back then, he worked with songbirds and said he really enjoyed that, but there was not much money in it so he went with waterfowl. Because people hunted them, there was a lot more funding in that area.

He came to the Okeechobee area to work with the mottled duck and worked on several ranches and farms in our area, such as the McArthur Dairies, the Larson Dairy and the Pearce family land in Glades County while he was doing research for his dissertation.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Cynthia Barnett
Dr. Paul Gray is pictured out on his beloved Lake Okeechobee.

After he graduated, the old Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission offered him a job working with waterfowl, but he said he told them he really did not want to do that. He was looking for something else. They asked him if he would consider taking the job temporarily because the legislature was in session at that time, and they were afraid lawmakers would phase out the position to save money if it wasn’t filled, so he agreed to take the job temporarily. However, three years later, he found himself still in the same position, and when a job opened in the Audubon Society in 1995, he applied.

The Audubon position was originally managing the Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary area in the northern part of Okeechobee County, which was 7,000 acres of dry prairie grassland, he explained. When he took the job, there was a proposal on the table to buy some of the land and make it into a state park. He worked on that project for several years and got it done in 2002. There are still sanctuaries which were designated by the governor in 1938, he said. He spends time lobbying on behalf of those sanctuaries while he is also lobbying on behalf of the lake.

Those sanctuaries encompass approximately 29,000 acres of lake marsh.

These days, he spends most of his time on issues involving the lake. He tries to make sure water levels are good, he said, and he tries to get the water cleaned up so we don’t have cyanobacteria, although he says we aren’t doing very well with that yet. He explained, we can’t control the level of the lake when it comes to rainfall or drought, but there are other things man can do. He lobbies to try to keep it not too deep or too shallow.

“About half of the lake level is human controlled, and half is Mother Nature,” he said. “We want to make sure the marsh is healthy.” He explained that this year they hope to lower the level to 11 feet because they want the sunlight to reach the bottom and germinate aquatic plant seeds and recover the marsh. “You wouldn’t want it this low every year,” he said. “Maybe every 10 years or so.” Right now, there are no snail kite nests on the lake because the level is so low, and there are not very many wading bird nests, either. Having the level this low is not ideal, but while we are in recovery mode, we have to take our medicine, he said.

While he is not originally from Florida, Dr. Gray has now lived here longer than he lived in Missouri. When he worked on the farms and ranches, he said he found there were a lot of nice habitats out there on the prairie lands. Now we have the lake that gets too deep, too shallow, too polluted, etc., he said. Officials are trying to find ways to fix the water flows into the lake, and one of the ways to do that is to catch the water upstream of the lake on private property. There are proposals called Distributive Water Management, Water Farming, Conservation Easement, etc., which are methods to catch water when it falls rather than have it run directly into the lake, and since most of it falls on private property, they want to work with the landowners. If they are going to spend money to put water into a reservoir, they may as well pay the landowners to catch it when it falls. This is something he really enjoys working on, he said.

“I like living in this watershed. I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “All of these people are ag people. People think of environmentalists and ag people as being against each other; yet in this case, we want to work with landowners, and we want to pay them to help us fix our water problems. This way we make landowners a part of the solution instead of the problem, and that, to me, is very important,” he said.

That’s what he likes about getting everyone to work together. No one likes seeing the lake messed up, he said. “The lake’s health affects life all around the lake. We need to preserve this habitat. That’s really my goal.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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