A career spent protecting Florida's watersheds has led Gian Basili '83 to wander through swamps and rivers, creeks and estuaries. Now he's the deputy state supervisor, Florida, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's been a career of challenges and triumphs.
"Florida is a great place to be a conservation practitioner," he says. "There is tremendous biodiversity, a robust network of public lands (31 percent of the state is in some form of public ownership), and highly capable conservation partners at the federal, state, local government, and nongovernmental levels. But we have our challenges."
Florida is the third-most populous state with 22 million people, Basili says. With population growth averaging 1,000 people per day over the past two years, he notes that is equivalent to adding as many people as in the city of Orlando every year. By 2050, Florida is projected to have more than 30 million residents.
Working lands used for cattle and timber production are under financial pressure to sell for housing developments. "Despite sometimes Herculean efforts, water quality in our lakes, rivers, and estuaries continues to be problematic for fish, wildlife, and people," he says. "Our coastal habitats, home to sea turtles, shorebirds, and other species, are vulnerable to impacts from climate change, including rising seas and more frequent and intense storms. Lots of challenges, but at the same time many opportunities to help create and maintain resilient and sustainable natural systems."
Basili has worked to protect Florida manatees, panthers, sea turtles, and many more species and habitats in his 30-plus-year career. "Much of my time lately is being spent on a few charismatic megafauna like manatees and panthers. They get a lot of attention, but if you design your project in a manner that enhances the long-term sustainability of those species, many others benefit from their protection. They are ‘umbrella species,'" he says. "Less charismatic species like the beach mice that inhabit our barrier islands are also in need of recovery efforts to enhance their probability of surviving in the future. [Mice] are considered gardeners on the dunes. They cache seeds, and those plants will grow and help stabilize the dunes, protect coastal ecosystems, protect humans from climate change, and help sustain the coastal environment."
The jury is still out on whether Florida will be able to sustain its extraordinary biodiversity, Basili says.
"During my tenure in Florida, tremendous progress has been made on multiple fronts including enhancing the network of conservation lands, which is again growing monthly and getting more and more connected," he says. Wetlands are being restored at landscape scales in the Everglades and throughout the state, benefiting numerous species and habitats.
Yet habitat loss to development is occurring at an unprecedented pace. Poor water quality in some of Florida's estuaries, lakes, and rivers is negatively impacting hundreds of species, Basili notes, and climate change is challenging the resiliency and sustainability of many species, especially those in coastal habitats.
These daunting challenges require a concerted effort between sometimes competing interests, including tourism, agriculture, and land development. Basili says convening disparate groups can be a challenge, but successful implementation of projects depends on relationships with people.
"In this field, two things are critical to getting things done on the ground—your credibility as a scientist and conservation biologist, and your ability to work with people," Basili says.
Why nature as a career? "It's beautiful, it's awe inspiring—the feats and natural history of wildlife can be spectacular," he says. "There are many challenges in natural resource management that require innovative solutions, and when you identify opportunities to help solve those problems, you can improve ecosystem health in a manner that benefits biodiversity and us. The beauty of nature inspires me, and to keep it in a condition where others get to enjoy it and experience it the way I do, that's something that keeps me going."
Basili says climate change is undoubtedly presenting huge challenges for species conservation in Florida.
"We are admittedly behind in our preparation for addressing climate change. For us in Florida, some of the big challenges include sea level rise and more frequent and more powerful storm events. We have many species that inhabit our coastal environment, beaches, and estuaries, and helping those species and habitats be more resilient to our changing climate will require innovation and collaboration.
"What gets me out of bed is knowing that on most days, I will be helping my team and outside partners find solutions to manage challenging species conservation issues," he adds. "In fact, I sometimes lose sleep from excitement after discovering a new opportunity and path forward for a great conservation outcome. This work can be inspiring in so many ways."