SEBRING — A Florida State Park Ranger since 2013, Laura McMullen grew up in Illinois, but never cared for cold weather. Receiving her bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University, after graduation she worked as a research assistant for Illinois State University.
“I studied Eastern lubber grasshoppers in Florida as part of a six-month research project,” she said.
While deeply entrenched near Fakahatchee, she studied color variations of nymphs, endured plenty of mosquitoes and experienced Big Cypress and Everglades City. After returning home, she soon came back as a volunteer and then an AmeriCorps member.
During her 11-month deployment with this national service program she completed training as a certified prescribed burner. When she began working for the Florida National Parks Association in the Big Cypress visitor center, it sparked her love of environmental education.
At Big Cypress for three years, she considered pursuing employment with the National Park Service, but found the state level more to her liking. For two summers McMullen applied, hoping applications might be lighter off season and offer better chances.
“I’ve liked being outside since I was a kid and really enjoy working outdoors. I wanted to be part of helping people understand the environment and enjoy wildlife.”
Landing her dream job at Highlands Hammock, McMullen and her 9-year-old son get to do just that. She’s had opportunity to point out a black bear to a group enjoying a tour on a busy Saturday afternoon.
“It was 1 o’clock and the bear was slowly moving at the tree line.” Then there was the time a large reptile had to be coaxed from the roadway. “Many visitors refer to this alligator by the name of the trail she frequents, the Fern Garden.”
From otters frolicking along the Richard Lieber Memorial Trail to baby owls peeking from giant oaks overhead, you just never know what you’ll see each day, she said.
It’s not all critters and handshakes however. There are trails to maintain, buildings and facilities to repair, plumbing and restroom cleaning to address and lots of trash removal. Then there are the resource management activities such as exotic plant removal and prescribed burning.
McMullen has completed several burn classes (S130, S190) and the I100 or Incident Command and Logistics training. On top of it all, she serves as the park’s interpretive chair.
From school groups to off site talks, McMullen schedules nature walks, campfire talks and roaming interpreters to better interact with park visitors. “I also assist the Friends of Highlands Hammock with programs and special events.” Working closely with fellow ranger Andrea Nelson and Park Services Specialist, Carla Kappymeyer-Sherwin, the team schedules activities and seeks more people for volunteering.
Educating the public about the diverse natural and cultural resources before them-a process referred to as interpretation-creates a sense of place and sparks wonder. The hope is that as visitors connect with the real Florida they will desire to protect and preserve sites for both future generations and the wildlife dependent on these resources for survival. McMullen shared she recently attended a statewide workshop and is excited about a renewed focus on nature education and interpretive programming.
Surrounded by great staffers who work together on projects to enhance park operations and visitor experience, she enjoys the ongoing opportunity to share her love of nature with the public.
“A lot of people, even in Sebring, don’t know about the park,” she said. She hopes the community knows Highlands Hammock State Park is a place you can go to have those elusive moments of peace we all seem to search for. “I’m spoiled,” she admitted. “I get to be here all the time.”
Soon to come are new trails to explore as McMullen and staffers reveal historic, long mileage trails from the park’s early beginnings.
“We are taking visitors out on the original 1930s trails with the help of the Friends of Highlands Hammock,” she said.
Whether you visit the camp store for a cup of Wild Orange ice cream or creamy slice of pie, take a tram to view dozens of alligators or enjoy one of the Music in the Park evening concerts, there is something for everyone. McMullen encourages a visit and don’t forget the park is home to the state of Florida’s Civilian Conservation Corps Museum.
“It is the only one in the state,” she said.