Students at work at Genius Reserve

Photo by Bruce Stephenson

The Genius Reserve Project

By Leigh Brown Perkins

Where there is much to learn on a quiet walk through Old Florida

Tucked Among the Lakes under a history of magnificent old trees, the Genius Reserve is a birder’s field guide come to life.

A rare wood stork trolls the shallows, feeling for minnows. A glossy anhinga warms its wings in the sun while a grackle makes a clacky fuss from a sweet bay branch. Astonishingly, even a peacock struts in the dappled undergrowth. Nesting, feeding, or simply passing through, more than 100 species of birds have been spotted on the property, and that’s just the way those in charge of its careful restoration hoped it would be.

Green Thumb

Karen Keim

Karen Keim ’74
In a sustainability project focusing on colleges, Karen Keim, a master’s degree candidate at Harvard University, used her alma mater as a case study, proposing that Rollins College create a “green fund” to build capital-investment seed money. The starting point for this project was a proposal to “green up” Rollins by achieving lowered consumption and emissions with corresponding reductions in operating costs for the College. “Green funds are being established at colleges and universities on a global basis,” Keim said. “The financial constraints many colleges and universities are coping with may be substantially assisted by green projects that will lower costs with minimal investment, and in some cases, without spending a dime. Ultimately, such capital-investment projects would substantially reduce the operating costs of the College, improve learning, and promote better health.” At Harvard University, Keim explained, the initial capital outlay for energy-saving renovations and conversion to environmentally friendly products has obtained, on average, a 37 percent return on investment. Rollins is looking at the possibility of adopting such a program in the future.

A graphic image of a leaf.

“The Genius Reserve project is a five-year plan to restore the area to the way it looked 100 years ago,” said Bruce Stephenson, professor of environmental studies and project manager. “We’ve reached all our goals and inventoried all of our plant species and restored seven of the eight acres inundated with non-native species. We’ve really accomplished something here.”

In 2002, the Rollins faculty developed a management plan for the 48-acre site, with support from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation. The plan focused on transforming the property into a working laboratory of ecological restoration. Areas dominated by exotic species would be returned to a more natural state. An abandoned aviary would be transformed into a nursery, where native plants could be propagated and planted. The landscape would bridge the distance between civilization and the natural world.

The plan succeeded.

In its five-year cycle, more than 2,000 native trees and shrubs were planted by Rollins students and volunteers from the Orange Audubon Society. Cleared sections have been carefully maintained. Restoration has begun on existing orange and banana groves. There are also lemon, grapefruit, and kumquat trees growing fragrant along meandering paths.

Photo by Bruce Stephenson.

The property has a long connection to Rollins. It was once owned by one of Winter Park’s founding fathers, Charles Hosmer Morse, who planted the groves and built the local landmark called Genius Drive, a winding scenic roadway through the property that took in views of Lakes Berry, Mizell, and Virginia. The parcel was later owned by Rollins president Hugh McKean ’30 ’72H and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean ’62H, who transformed Wind Song, as it was known, into a botanical oasis. It was McKean who brought in the peacocks. “It really is a slice of Old Florida, not unlike Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s [’39H] Cross Creek,” Stephenson said. “This property has a story to tell about our local history. Restoring it is a cultural and ecological and aesthetic project, not just a landscape project.”

It’s also a community-building project. Since September 2007, the Orange Audubon Society, the local branch of the national conservation organization, has been conducting monthly bird surveys of year-round and migratory species that use the Reserve for breeding or foraging. Rollins students, including evening students from the Hamilton Holt School, help in these areas too, but they also approach the landscape academically. Students analyze the site and design areas for restoration, clearing one section at a time and making careful data comparisons as they progress.

Stephenson said an education in environmental studies—or biology, or film, or art, for that matter—would be incomplete without this kind of hands-on experience. “It is essential for our students to be conversant in restoration, to get their hands dirty in restoration, otherwise this is just a pretty pastoral model without teeth. It would have no impact.”

Students take a break from working at the Genius Reserve. Photo by Bruce Stephenson.

Their hands-on efforts recently gained notice by 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit organization that presents an annual award for innovative growth management efforts. The group presented its Better Community Award to the Genius Reserve last June. Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends, called it a model for community education in action. “This is a well-planned and implemented effort to restore and protect an important piece of open space in an urban setting,” Pattison said. “It shows what a committed group of people can accomplish with vision and a workable plan.”

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