UES Project Manager Blends Development and Conservation
By Todd Persons
Amateur animal blogger Autumn Mercer has both a Facebook and an Instagram page with 3,000 total followers titled “All about Animals with Autumn.” If you assume the lighthearted title sums up the pastime of a basement blogger, then you don’t know Autumn Mercer. If TV producers wanted to create a show about a next-generation environmentalist, Mercer would surely be cast as the lead.
Mercer, 25, is an Orlando native who “loves everything about Florida” and whose goal is “to educate the world on the importance of conserving and protecting endangered species.” Although she grew up watching every episode of Steve Irwin’s “The Crocodile Hunter,” Mercer is definitely not a couch potato. With a full head of fiery auburn hair, she has the healthy “outdoorsy” appearance of someone at home in the natural world.
After receiving an environmental sciences degree from the University of Central Florida and some early work experience, Mercer got her dream job as a project manager with Orlando-based Universal Engineering Sciences LLC (UES), the largest geotechnical engineering firm of its type in the U.S.
Her group works with landowners and developers on a variety of issues, including protected species assessments and evaluations of environmental sites and wetlands. Clients often need help navigating the complex environmental regulatory systems designed to protect endangered and threatened species like scrub jays, burrowing owls, Eastern Indigo snakes and other Florida wildlife.
Mercer gets to go nose-to-beak with creatures like the gopher tortoise, a large, natural excavator that can dig holes in undeveloped Florida soil 30 feet deep and 50 feet long with multiple tunnels where it nests and hides. Her job is to assess these burrows for activity. If the burrow is active, she will excavate the tortoise, then record and relocate it as the law requires. If a planned development site is not properly cleared of protected creatures, no development can occur.
“One of the challenges we have in the environmental field is to have clients understand the ‘why’ of why we do this,” Mercer says, adding that she believes people in the development arena are becoming more enlightened to the importance of species protection, just as professionals in her line of work are trying to shed the image of overzealous “tree huggers.”
“I see my profession as seeking a realistic balance between development and environmental concerns,” Mercer says. “There are good laws on the books that protect endangered and threatened species and the environment in general. Clients want to get their projects completed, but they are starting to understand the benefits of working cooperatively with existing rules. There are new generations with new attitudes on both sides of the equation.”
When she isn’t rescuing gopher tortoises that may not want to be rescued, Mercer tends to her five-acre Orange County farm, caring for a menagerie of five goats, five hens, a rooster, a rabbit, two dogs and a cat.
Mercer sees gopher tortoises as bridge builders between the worlds of development and conservation. They are nature’s apartment landlords.
“Tortoise burrows are deep with many passageways and usually large cul-de-sacs at the bottom,” she says. “Even after a tortoise abandons it, a burrow can become home for other protected creatures that might otherwise have trouble fending for themselves.”
Gopher tortoises are protected by law as much for the safety their burrows provide other species as for their own protection. She admits that “tenants” can occasionally include an opportunistic coyote dropping in for a quick buffet. In Mercer’s TV universe, that part might be left out of the final script.