Allen Burdett: 45 Years Protecting Florida’s Natural Spaces

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When 16-year-old Allen Burdett came home with a diamond back rattlesnake, instead of throwing them both out, his mom sent him to the library to get a book on snakes. They kept the snake for six years, in a garage that sometimes housed hundreds of reptiles ranging from gentle garter snakes to an occasional cottonmouth and an always-hungry crocodile rescued when a museum in Sulphur Springs closed its doors.

That love for all kinds of critters, combined with a knack for book knowledge, has been a hallmark of Burdett’s career spanning nearly 45 years.

Allen Burdett (far right) led an expedition of staffers from FDEP’s Tampa office deep inside the Green Swamp where they discovered a forest of ancient cypress trees. Photo courtesy Allen Burdett.

In fact, by the time he joined the Board of Conservation (now known as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection) in 1968, he’d already made a name for himself in Tampa Bay. Still a student at the University of South Florida, he had done the sampling that helped stop the last phase of dredge and fill in Boca Ciega Bay.

“The rules were different then,” he says in his typically understated fashion. Developers could buy seagrass beds or mangrove forests for nearly nothing, dredge canals and create valuable waterfront land. Even the federal government, through its Soil Conservation Service, dug canals through wetlands to drain them so they could be used for more valuable services like farming, logging and ranching.

“The thinking was the more land we had, the more productive it would be. No one considered the productivity of a seagrass bed.”

These days, he’s trekking through the Green Swamp, directing contractors on where to block ditches or put culverts under roads to return the land to a more natural system. “We haven’t walked every inch but we’ve covered a lot of land,” he says.

He starts by reviewing decades’ worth of aerial photos, looking for changes and trying to track natural flows by observing the vegetation. For instance, oak trees can tolerate a few inches of standing water occasionally but a large number of small oak trees mixed within a cypress stand indicates that water levels are changing.

Even the latest technology still requires feet on the ground to confirm what’s happening. Case in point: Burdett and his supervisor, Judy Ashton, discovered Simpson’s Hole deep in the Giddon Lake area of the Green Swamp only because they heard running water. “We were in the middle of a big pond and we could hear a lot of water tumbling down a shaft, probably into large caverns that connect directly to the aquifer.”

Green Swamp is somewhat of a misnomer. “This is not just a big flat swamp,” he says. You need to be on the ground to get the rhythm of the system, to see the patterns and understand the interconnections. It’s a detective game I really enjoy.”

From a more technical perspective, water levels must be calibrated to within 1/100th of a foot to successfully restore the area, which can be challenging in a swamp where it’s difficult to detect even the direction of water flow. Burdett laughs when he tells the story of one farmer who dug an illegal ditch to drain his land – and then discovered that his farm was actually lower than the river so water backed up and flooded him out instead of flowing off.

“We need to hold water in the Green Swamp as long as we can so it has a chance to percolate back into the aquifer,” he says. Keeping water levels high also is critical for wildlife. A heron rookery, for example, is dependent on high water because that allows alligators in – and they keep raccoons out so baby birds have a chance to survive.

Along with helping to protect critical habitat in places like the Green Swamp, Burdett has been involved in multiple coastal restoration initiatives including the award-winning Emerson Point Preserve in Manatee County. “Allen has worked on an incredible array of environmental projects and I’ve had the good fortune to work with him on several of them,” says Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County’s Natural Resources Department.

Back in the Green Swamp, Burdett spends a lot of time slogging through wetlands where snakes and alligators guard their territories because it’s easier than cutting his way through overgrown palmettos laced with native grape and catbrier vines. Still, it’s a far cry from his earlier days at FDEP.

One of three biologists across the state charged with evaluating the impact of development plans on natural resources, he was responsible for a territory that stretched from Crystal River to Marco Island on the west coast and from Melbourne to Cape Canaveral on the east. “There were a lot of times when I showed up to look at a site prior to approving a permit and found that construction was well underway,” he said. “We only had three or four people in charge of enforcement too. They didn’t always want to hear about problems because they already had more than 200 active cases on their desks.”

And as concerned as some people are about environmental protection today, Florida has made enormous strides since Burdett first joined DEP. “It was the wild, wild west back then,” he quips.

Originally published Fall 2012

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