Gainesville and its surrounding areas boast several beautiful nature spots that many of us take for granted.
If no one took the time to maintain our favorite hiking trails or springs, they would cease to exist. Any untouched patch of earth faces the threats of development and destruction. Even the beloved Paynes Prairie could not survive without help. So, who are these committed citizens working to protect it?
Meet the Friends of Paynes Prairie.
Formed in 1972, Friends of Paynes Prairie (FOPP) is a Citizen Support Organization of about 400 members devoted to the cause of the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Operating as a non-profit corporation, the group’s mission is to put on programs and activities at the park, fundraise and help embetter the park infrastructure. Paynes Prairie provides a much needed and authentic connection to the natural world that would be decimated if left to fend for itself. Without FOPP, Gainesvillians would be unable to stargaze, hike or birdwatch at the beautiful park.
The Friends’ mission is to support the park with volunteer work and financial support for park events, resource management education and public outreach and facilities.
“We operate a normal annual budget of $35,000 to $45,000 a year (by) raising funds from memberships, sales of books and firewood at the prairie, gifts and donations and revenues from events,” said FOPP President Perran Ross.
The organization is also responsible for the volunteers that operate the park’s visitor center and the Alachua Trail information trailer. According to Ross, the volunteers provide information, guidance and safety tips for at least 250,000 visitors per year. This astonishing number of people being helped solely by volunteers passionate about the park illustrates the need for committed citizens to help preserve their favorite nature spots.
One of FOPP’s greatest contributions to the park has been through the park’s visitor center. Although many of us expect any state park to have a well-constructed visitor center, it takes more than one may realize to meet this need.
“Since 2011 Friends has provided over $150,000 to support renovation of the Park Visitor center and exhibits,” Ross said. “These funds have in turn attracted over a half million dollars of State and federal matching funds to conduct the renovation construction…Additional fundraising and planning is currently underway to complete upgrades to the exhibits and information at the renovated visitor center.”
As one of Friends of Paynes Prairies’ greatest victories, the visitor center will celebrate its grand opening on April 20th. This would not have been remotely possible without FOPP.
With the ability to join FOPP online and to keep up with its events on Facebook, there is no reason why fellow Paynes Prairie lovers should not get involved. From the wild horses and bison to the beautiful greenery, the state park is the perfect getaway from the daily bustle of Gainesville, so long as it is maintained.
Paynes Prairie remains a must-see in the Gainesville area, but only because the dedicated group of citizens behind Friends of Payne Prairie have ensured that it continues to flourish.