A community hot spot for locals to learn about their surrounding habitat and enjoy outdoor activities, the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach hosted a guided tour of the property for the Recorder on Monday, Sept. 10 to showcase its offerings and highlight its impact on St. Johns County.
Ellen Leroy-Reed, executive director of the Friends of t he GTM Research Reserve, hosted the tour. Among several topics, she discussed the Reserve’s educational component and the classrooms available for students to learn about the ecosystem with a hands-on approach — by examining the elements both indoors and outside. The classrooms are offered to the community completely free of charge.
"The education team has built really strong relationships here with the teachers, especially in the science programs" Ellen Leroy-Reed said. "It's not an official formal relationship, but it is open to anyone in the community."
Leroy-Reed also noted that research gathered from the GTM Reserve is often used by local politicians to help them make informed decisions on environmental issues. During the tour, the executive director said the venue is offered for weddings, businesses and social groups. She also touted GTM’s enthusiastic group of volunteers, its housing of fish and wildlife, the Environmental Education Center and more.
According to the GTM Reserve’s official website, the local attraction welcomes over 200,000 visitors per year from around the globe. The result of a collaboration between Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the GTM Reserve covers 74,000 acres of coastal lands in Northeast Florida from Ponte Vedra Beach to Palm Coast. It is one of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves in America that focuses on research, stewardship and education.
The GTM Reserve’s various trails allow visitors to hike through the tranquil ecosystem and observe nature in a quiet space. Trails vary in length and accommodate long hikes and short walks.
"I think what's nice about our trail system is that there's a trail for every level," Leroy-Reed said. "For those that love to hike, you can walk seven or eight miles and go through the various habitats and look at the types of ecology that is in our backyard."
The executive director added that the GTM Reserve offers a space for birdwatching, photography and seining.
"The birding is extraordinary," she said. "We have birders out there every morning at 6 a.m. taking photos. If that's something that you're really passionate about, spending time in rustic nature, we have a trail for you."
Leroy-Reed said GTM offers free services through the hard work of the Friends of the GTM Reserve, a 501(c)(3) organization comprised of private citizens. The group utilizes community partnerships, volunteerism, financial support and outreach to support the Reserve’s mission.
The nonprofit's biggest fundraising event of the year, Oceanwise: An Evening for the Estuaries, will take place on Saturday, Sept. 29 at the Reserve.
"All of the money we raise goes back into the research, education and stewardship," Leroy-Reed revealed. "If we can raise the money that we need to keep our researchers monitoring, our rangers out there protecting (the Reserve) and making sure it's clean and usable for our guests, that's a good thing for all of us."
Tickets for the gala cost $65. Leroy-Reed said the event sold out last year, and those who would like to attend should sign up early.
For more information on the GTM Research Reserve, or to become a Friends member, visit www.gtmnerr.org.