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  • Tara Crutchfield

Shannon Carnevale

A love for nature and science landed Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agent II, M.S., Shannon Carnevale, her dream job. Now she spends her days researching, planning programs, hosting a podcast, and sharing that love with others. We chatted with Carnevale about her career, the “Naturally Florida” podcast, civic engagement, and small changes citizens can make to foster Florida’s wild spaces. 


 Shannon Carnevale and her husband, City of Winter Haven Public Works Director M.J. Carnevale, hail from West Palm Beach. “M.J. and I both, because we were in Scouts, grew up camping and hiking and being outdoors,” said Carnevale. Her parents were Scout leaders, and her dad encouraged her to join a co-ed group in the program called Venture Crew. The Crew would travel across the country for summer camps and backpacking trips on high-adventures like white water kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking. Carnevale even did an eight-day hike over 100 miles through the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. “I grew up loving the outdoors, and I knew I didn’t want a traditional desk job,” she said. 


 Shannon and M.J. became high school sweethearts and attended college together at the University of Florida. She initially studied Environmental Engineering in college, hoping to work in ecosystem management. After finding the field different from what she’d expected, she looked into forestry. Shannon was interested in how M.J., who’d switched to forestry, talked about the coursework and potential career paths after graduating. After talking to the academic advisor at what was formerly called the School of Forestry, Carnevale transferred her major. 


 A seminar series in her senior year inspired Carnevale to go after her current job. Every other week in the class, a professional would speak to the students about what field they had gone into with their forestry degree. The term’ forestry’ might evoke images of a park ranger, but the field is much broader than that, including production forestry, habitat management, environmental lands, and beyond. 


 Her professor spoke one week about the 30 percent of his job as an extension agent. He told the class, “All the research we do in school is only as good as we can communicate it with the people who need to use it.” His extension job entailed reading scientific journal articles, going to training, and perpetually learning. He would then relay that information to professionals managing land. “I just fell in love with it,” Carnevale said. “You’re telling me I can be a student (sort of) but get paid like an adult, and I still get to go outside and meet with land managers?” She was all in.


 In 2010, she began interviewing and was hired for her dream job as the Polk County Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agent II, M.S., for US/IFAS. Her interview at the Bartow extension office was her first-time visiting Polk County, which she and M.J. now call home. 


 NATURAL RESOURCES AND CONSERVATION


 “The Natural Resources and Conservation program in Polk County is committed to improving the current state of our local ecosystems through natural resources educational programs,” according to their website. “By sharing science-based information to improve upon current management and land use practices, the Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Program will improve the function of our natural systems.” 


 Carnevale’s job is different all the time. In an academic role, employed by both UF and Polk County, Carnevale is responsible for touching on Florida’s ecosystems in Polk and reporting back to the university. That academic reporting is what she’s working on this time of year – looking at engagement rates, surveys, and what people are learning from her podcast, “Naturally Florida.” 


 Carnevale also plans engaging nature-focused in-person programming. She has several upcoming trainings, including Introduction to Backpacking and Camping (in-person and webinar), Leave No Trace webinars, a new multi-week water course for the public (in-person only) called Florida Waters Stewardship Program, and webinars about wildlife and wildlife safety for families over summer break. 


 The extension program is a taxpayer-funded operation. “We’re not out to make a profit, which is different than a lot of places. We can be flexible. We can bring in experts, and we try to charge as little as possible.” Carnevale partners with businesses and parks around the county for events and programs held at the Bartow extension office, Circle B Bar Reserve, Bonnet Springs Park, and beyond. The Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agent discussed an upcoming in-person event at Circle B Bar Reserve called the Heartland CISMA Invasive Species Workshop. Targeted toward anyone who works outside with plants – biologists, land managers, technicians – the April 12 program is a combination of classroom workshops and in-the-field training. 


 Throughout the morning, speakers from across the state will give presentations, including an updated treatment plan for invasive plant species and an update on invasive mosquito species from Polk County BoCC Entomologist Jackson Mosley. After lunch, they will split into groups, with one group learning how to calibrate spray equipment on the lawn adjacent to the classroom and the other learning to identify plant species in the ‘Garden of Evil,’ a patio brought in by FWC with 125 different plants. The groups will switch after an hour to give everyone the opportunity to participate in both breakout sessions. 


 Carnevale holds events for the general public as well. Several times a year, she guides a two-hour nature night hike. “We ask [participants] what do you want to see? What do you want to hear? What are you afraid of after dark? All we’re trying to do is get people comfortable being in a natural area after dark. One of the big barriers to people going out on their own and doing outdoor recreation like camping is because they’re scared of it.”


 Immersive outdoor events like Carnevale’s night hikes are an ideal way to show people how to become more comfortable in our natural spaces. The extension agent remembers a kayak trip she took with the City a few years ago – specifically, one terrified little girl. She said, “By the end of the one-and-a-half-hour tour, not only was she so excited and wanted to go kayaking that weekend, but she was jumping around in the water trying to catch fish with her hands. A dragonfly landed on her, and it wasn’t the end of the world. That’s a win.” 



THE “NATURALLY FLORIDA” PODCAST 


 The “Naturally Florida” podcast hosted by Shannon Carnevale and Lara Milligan has a target audience of professionals who otherwise can’t or won’t come to an extension program workshop. Carnevale described the audience as busy people who are likely working, caring for children, or both – and are looking to learn a little bit about the natural world around them. One of the reasons they started the podcast was to “bottle up” all the fun facts they had to share. All about “Florida’s natural areas and the wild things that live here,” the podcast is brought to listeners by UF/IFAS Extension’s Natural Resources programs in Polk and Pinellas Counties. “One of our main objectives for our program is to increase science literacy related to our natural ecosystems,” Carnevale said. She and Milligan, both extension agents, touch on a broad swath of topics on the podcast. This includes individual species profiles (like the native Green Anole) and concepts like prescribed fire and the natural role of fire in our ecosystems, urban heat islands, and lake health. 


 “It’s an introduction level to all of these different topics. My goal is that someone listens to it who otherwise wouldn’t come to an environmental program and is like, ‘Hm, that’s kind of cool. I want to go into the show notes and find those resources they shared. Maybe I want to go to an extension program. Maybe I just want to go on a nature hike at my park,’” Carnevale said. “Anything where we can try to help get people who maybe weren’t raised with a culture of hiking and camping outside to enjoy that natural area. [...] If people don’t have a connection to those areas, nobody values them, and if we don’t value them, we don’t try to protect them.”


SMALL CHANGES 


“Small changes by every citizen can contribute to a brighter tomorrow for our natural environment,” reads an excerpt from the UF/IFAS Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Program webpage. What are some of these ‘small changes?’ “For Polk County residents, the easiest thing people can do is control their stormwater,” said Carnevale. “Stormwater is all the water that hits your home, driveway, or sidewalk and then runs into the street. If you can keep that water on your property and let it soak into the ground, you will help everything in Winter Haven. You’ll help our lakes and our drinking water.” 


She described our lakes as ‘sinkhole lakes,’ putting it simply, “They fill from the bottom. They seep up and from the sides.” Rain falls, and stormwater pipes dump water into them, but “water is filtered by the soil and the soil microbes that live in the soil. It helps reduce the over-nutrification of our water. (Think fertilizers, dog waste, cat waste, pollution from cars, brake dust, that sort of thing.) Having your water on your lawn, it can soak in, and it will be clean by the time it gets to our lakes.” 


For example, Carnevale noted that it only takes water that falls in downtown Winter Haven less than a minute to get to Lake Howard, “and everything it touches, it takes with it.” The City of Winter Haven implemented rain gardens downtown to trap that water. The water goes into the rain garden and has a chance to collect and seep. “If we get a really big gully washer, and we get a ton of rain in a short timeframe, it will do what we call ‘pop off.’ It’ll overflow the rain garden and then go into a drain. It gives it that little percolation area first.”


Carnevale encourages citizens to turn their gutters away from the driveway and into their lawn. This tip applies countywide. Your yard may be a good candidate for a rain garden if you have sandy soil. If you have any questions about whether or not a rain garden would work in your yard, you can call the extension office for assistance.  


“If you happen to live lakefront, having emergent plants (plants that grow up out of the water) at least for part of your lakefront, that will help with erosion control and water quality,” she added. “That emergent vegetation’s root zone is where a lot of the nutrient cycling happens, which improves water quality and clarity over time. So not killing all the plants on your lakefront is a big thing.”


Those living in an apartment complex or condo can work with their property manager to see if a Florida-Friendly Landscape can be planted around the complex. “Florida-Friendly Landscapes use less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, less water, and they also tend to highlight species that are good for our local area,” Carnevale explained. 

 

GET INVOLVED 


“If people care about green space, whatever form it may be – agriculture, parks, all these things – they need to get involved.” The community can make many ‘small changes’ to care for our natural spaces, but Carnevale emphasized civic engagement. “Get involved with your City government. Join those committees, show up at visioning meetings, participate in surveys they put out,” she said. “They want to know what the residents want as far as urban forests are concerned, park land, natural areas, and development.” 


To get the most from your engagement, get involved early. “With natural resources, people don’t care until they’re gone, and when they’re gone, it’s really hard to get them back,” Carnevale said. 

You can engage with US/IFAS by listening to the “Naturally Florida” podcast, attending workshops and webinars, and subscribing to the “Your Polk Yard” newsletter. The newsletter is composed by Residential Horticulture Extension Agent for the UF/IFAS Extension of Polk County, Anne Yasalonis, with contributions from other extension agents, like Carnevale. It covers everything from vegetable gardening, flower gardening, lawn care, wildlife you may see in residential areas, really anything to do with your yard. Find this email newsletter on their website (sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk). And if you have a stubborn plant problem, try the Plant Clinic (863-519-1057 or polkmg@ifas.ufl.edu). You can call, email, walk in, or video call with the plant clinic to troubleshoot plant problems; soil pH testing; insect, disease, and plant identification; Florida-Friendly Landscaping recommendations; and vegetable and fruit tree growing assistance. 


With more classes than we can count, the Extension Program hosts small farms programming, 4-H youth development, nutrition and budgeting, and more. “We have so much to offer,” Carnevale said. Those interested in Extension can visit the Extension Program Facebook page for various events or visit the website to read up on blog posts. 


Photography by Amy Sexson


Natural Resources and Conservation 
UF/IFAS Extension Polk County
863-519-1051  
TWT and IG @PolkNR
FB @PolkExtension

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