Illustration by Lily Moline
The pair come to the property at 5:30 a.m. to beat the sun. This early in the morning, the world is hushed and dark. They must move quietly among the familiar hardwoods of the Barr Hammock Preserve as they scout the underbrush for signs of life.
It takes time, but eventually a shot rings out. The sound spooks the birds, and they burst from the trees, scattering into the sky.
Joel Smith and Jim Kauffman are here to hunt. It’s what they’re owed, after all.
The two men are volunteer caretakers for the Alachua County conservation lands. In exchange for maintaining the property, the Alachua County Commission grants them and one guest each hunting privileges on the land. The exchange has saved the county at least $10,000 in its first year.
The county owns thousands of acres of preservation property that require consistent maintenance, said Ramesch Buch, program manager for Alachua County Forever. Controlled burns, pruning and mowing are necessary to keep the preservation lands from becoming overgrown with weeds and potentially starting a fire.
But the cost is as formidable as the task.
So last January, the county commission passed the Alachua County Hunting Business Plan. The county solicited volunteers who would take on the responsibility to keep up with the properties in exchange for the opportunity to hunt on them.
Smith and Kauffman both agreed to the deal. The pair had known each other for years, Smith said, having gone to school together at the University of Florida in the ‘60s.
Now they mow and hunt together. Every week Smith and Kauffman ride down to the Barr Hammock Preserve, trailing through the 2,500 acres of land. They trim the grass around the old dirt paths, which had once been stagecoach roads; pick up litter; patrol for trespassers; and inspect the property for any significant developments, like the eagle nests they’ve discovered in the trees.
Smith, a retired University of Florida forestry professor, said he and Kauffman were well suited for the task as long-time Gainesville residents who have worked with the property for over 25 years. Kauffman had been the preserve’s land manager before he moved to Fernandina Beach, two hours away.
“We knew that property,” he said, “every piece of it, every pond.”
The pair also mow their way through the property’s roads twice a year, once in June and for a second time in September. The process takes three days, with the two getting up at the crack of dawn and working through the day.
Smith said Kauffman brings down a large mower from his home and the pair push through the 13 miles of roads together. Smith darts in front to clear away brush and logs while Kauffman trails behind on the mower to plow through the bushes and grass.
Caretakers also help maintain population control, Buch said. Alachua County is home to wild hogs, which are not native to Florida. Buch said the hogs tend to destroy parts of the property as they dig up roots. Caretakers, by hunting the hogs, help prevent this.
With few signs of life on the long and narrow slice of land, the preserve seems ancient and untouched. It’s most noticeable in the live oaks scattered throughout, with trunks so wide it would take at least two people to wrap around one and the old, burned down house from the turn of the century. The preserve has never been developed, Smith said. It gives a peek into what Florida looked like when Native Americans lived there.
As for his payment, Smith said he hunts deer, turkey and hogs. To him, though, the weekly checkups and days of labor are for more than simply the privilege of hunting. He said he wants to protect the land for the public to see and enjoy for years to come.
“It’s a wonderful piece of property,” he said. “It’s not an easy task, but it’s worth doing.”