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Posted 12/17/2013

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By Erica Skolte
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District


This past year, Lake Okeechobee has been in the news and the subject of much attention. Through it all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District provided frequent updates for the media and the public regarding water releases, lake levels and the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds the lake. The recent focus on the lake provides an opportunity for the Corps to continue to educate and engage the public about all operations around the lake, including invasive species management.

Outreach to the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee is nothing new to the members of the district’s Invasive Species Management Branch. They have always gone to great lengths and used a broad variety of methods to inform the public. Now, they are harnessing the power of social media to boost their reach. Facebook and Twitter are just some of the newest tools in their outreach toolbox, allowing them to expand the visibility of their existing programs.

One of the long-standing outreach programs around the lake remains intact. Corps biologists continue to visit fish camps, bait shops and marinas around the 143-mile long lake shore at least once a month, to hand-deliver treatment schedules.

“The personal contact helps us to maintain relationships and help the local community. Whenever Corps employees go out around the lake, conversations open up opportunities to field all types of questions,” said biologist Jon Morton. “People ask us about all kinds of things, not just invasive species management. They also ask us about lake levels, water releases, fisheries and really anything related to the lake. The biologists can put them in contact with someone who can answer their questions.”

“Face-to-face interaction on a consistent basis is incredibly important,” said biologist Jeremy Crossland, who worked at the lake for many years and now focuses on invasive species management district-wide. “When we go out and talk to the same people at the fish camps, bait shops and marinas every few weeks, people get to know us and feel more comfortable. They are more likely to ask questions or communicate things about what is happening around the lake that are important for us to know. You start out talking about work, but after stopping in time after time, eventually you start talking about other things. You gradually build a personal relationship that helps both people learn more about what’s going on. It’s a two-way street.”

Corps biologists are often on the lake in airboats marked with the distinctive Corps castle logo.

“A big part of the job for us is pre- and post-treatment monitoring, to measure the effectiveness of the treatment of target plants and to ensure that damage to non-target native plant species is minimized,” said biologist Nicole Liette. When they are out on the water or at public use areas like boat ramps, members of the public frequently ask questions about the lake.

“It is important to educate the public about invasive species, the effects of invasive species on the environment, and the importance of maintaining Lake Okeechobee as a healthy ecosystem,” said biologist David Lattuca. “Letting people know about how problematic these invasive plants really are can help them to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. If they know that water hyacinth can double in as little as 10 to 14 days, the need to treat and control them makes a lot more sense.”

Another new outreach strategy debuted in March. The Corps installed permanent metal signs at all boat ramps around the lake, featuring websites that are regularly updated with information on vegetation management. The QR code displayed at the bottom right corner of the sign makes information immediately available to anyone with a cell phone. The signs provide up-to-date information more efficiently and cost-effectively than posting flyers in kiosks.

Regularly scheduled meetings provide another source of information and opportunity for public participation. The Corps chairs the Lake Okeechobee Aquatic Plant Management Interagency Task Force meetings that take place approximately every four to six weeks, with the location alternating between the Corps’ South Florida Operations Office in Clewiston and the South Florida Water Management District’s Okeechobee Service Center. Members of the Corps, the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which share joint responsibility for invasive species management around the lake, meet to discuss vegetation management issues and projects. The meetings are open to the public, and members of the public can also call in and participate. In contrast to many other meetings, members of the public are invited to speak during the first part of the meeting. Information from these meetings is posted on the Lake Okeechobee Aquatic Plant Management Interagency Task Force website (www.floridainvasives.org/okeechobee).

In the past, many fishermen, guides and other stakeholders have attended meetings. The biologists have built relationships and work closely with recreational fisherman, especially around tournament time. If there is a tournament going on, they will do their best to move treatment operations to a different part of the lake, if possible.

If needed, public information meetings are held in Okeechobee and Clewiston. These meetings are held in the evening, when it is easier for the general public to attend. Information on all upcoming meetings will now be available via Jacksonville District social media sites. Treatment schedules are updated weekly on the Jacksonville District website, and are now posted on both the district’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/JacksonvilleDistrict) and its Lake Okeechobee and the Okeechobee Waterway Facebook page (www.facebook.com/LakeOkeechobeeOWW). The social media outlets also link visitors back to information on the Jacksonville District website.

These new outlets are quickly becoming known to both the public and the media as excellent sources for all types of information about Lake Okeechobee. News releases, educational information, public meetings, news stories, daily lake levels, water safety information and treatment schedules are all shared on the site. The power of social media was demonstrated when a recent posting of the treatment schedule on the Lake Okeechobee Facebook page was shared by several local newspapers, including the Glades County Democrat, Clewiston News and Okeechobee News. As a result, nearly 1,700 people saw the information in their news feed.

Though social media provides powerful new ways to share information, members of the public may also talk to a Corps biologist in person.

“One of our biologists would be happy to speak with anyone who has questions,” said Morton. “They can always give us a call, and we will answer their questions or check out their concerns.”

The need to continue educating people about invasive species control is ongoing.

“Outreach in south Florida is always very dynamic,” said Crossland. “In addition to the local community, we also have a lot of visitors who come down to fish seasonally. We must continually inform and educate the public, respond to their concerns and help them understand the importance of our work.”

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