The US NAVY: Defenders of More than Just Our Freedom

SCA Intern Jennifer Bright teaches conservation to children at the Jacksonville Naval Base

SCA intern Jennifer Bright on Conservation and Education at NAS JAX

I never expected to be responsible for live and static exhibit care of an interpretive center when I first saw the advertisement for the SCA intern position at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS JAX). Interpretive Centers are run by the state or non-profits; they are not the responsibility of a Master Anti-Submarine Warfare Base. Yet, NAS JAX is one of eight military bases that employ SCA interns, which is a project they have been hosting intermittently since 1994.

At just a little less than 4,000 acres, NAS JAX is the third largest naval station in the US, located in Florida’s largest city by both population and land area. The base sits just eight miles south of its downtown located on the St. John’s River - the lifeblood of the city.

The two main responsibilities of my internship were education and conservation. For the education portion, I was in charge of care and maintenance of exhibits in the Black Point Interpretive Center. The majority of the animals are native to northeast Florida, including a Florida box turtle, Florida kingsnake, corn snake and Florida soft-shell turtles. Other animals are invasive species used for educational purposes such as brown anoles and a Cuban tree frog.

Along with my fellow SCA intern, Tina Jackson, I taught environmental education to over 400 children this year on topics ranging from native and invasive flora and fauna of Northeast Florida to coral reefs and population dynamics. NAS JAX has a great relationship with the city of Jacksonville thanks to attendance at community outreach events, such as the Earth Day Celebration at the Jacksonville Landing, environmental symposiums at the University of North Florida, and festivals at local science museums

Educating children is both challenging and rewarding, here are a few things I’ve learned about kids while trying teach them about the environment: 

1.  They want every turtle to be a snapping turtle. I don’t remember being obsessed with snapping turtles as a kid or believing there is only one species of turtle but every time students visit the Interpretive Center there’s always a handful of kids eager to declare the four different species of turtle in our Interpretive Center to all be snapping turtles. 

2.  Venomous snakes are the only snakes worth discussing. When I reach the snake portion of my lesson, before I can even get the name of the snake species out of my mouth, a child always interrupts with, “Is it poisonous?!” To which I immediately respond “No, our Florida king snake is not venomous, in fact this snake is immune to the venom of most snakes”. The discussion of which snakes in Florida are capable of killing them and which are not is always the portion of my lesson kids are at their most attentive.

3.  Kids are eager to learn and instilling the importance of caring for our planet while they are young is crucial to ensuring they become lifelong stewards of our planet. While children mainly want to know whether or not a certain animal is capable of biting them, I’ve found children are also truly interested in whether a species is thriving or threatened, whether its invasive or noninvasive, in addition to the important role every animal plays in its ecosystem.

Another responsibility I had was conservation. The Sikes Acts and Department of Defense instruction require every military installation to have an Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, or INRMP, to serve as a guideline on how to care for, maintain, conserve and rehabilitate the natural resources of a base. INRMPs are prepared in cooperation with state agencies to ensure wildlife and habitat needs are adequately addressed. 

The Department of Defense has been involved in promoting pollinator and pollinator habitat conservation efforts on its lands for nearly a decade. With the recent endangerment listing of the Monarch butterfly I have spent a great deal of time working on rehabilitating the Black Point Watchable Wildlife Area’s Butterfly Garden during my internship. When I first began, the butterfly garden was overgrown, overrun with weeds and contained many nonnative plant species. Tina and I redesigned the garden, removing most of the nonnative species and ordered important native plants like swamp milkweed and butterflyweed (which are host and nectar plants for the Monarch), a sassafras tree for the zebra swallowtail, tickseed (Florida’s state wildflower), as well as planting shrubs and flowers the butterfly garden’s resident Gopher Tortoise would enjoy eating. The construction company Batson-Cook gave us resources and the time of over twenty volunteers to overhaul our butterfly garden. 

While the mission always comes first, environmental responsibility is paramount to the Navy’s operations. My time as NAS JAX’s Natural Resources Intern was a great first experience into the conservation field. I learned about natural resources management, how to be a better educator, how to attract pollinators, and the importance the Navy places on protecting both people and our planet.