Talbot parks manager has spent a quarter century in paradise
Mar 09, 2013 (The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Like many people who work desk jobs, Bob Joseph likes to get outside for a sanity break every once in a while.
When he takes his, he can find himself at the isolated north end of Little Talbot Island. From there, the wind whips across the Nassau Sound, and the outriggers of two wrecked shrimp boats poke up from an offshore sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean.
Or he can go to his favorite spot, on the beach below the bluffs at Big Talbot Island, where trees from eroded bluffs have tumbled across the sand.
He can even drive on a circuitous route to Pumpkin Hill Creek, going down sandy dirt roads to check out a bald eagle nest high in a pine tree -- keeping his eye out all the way for the hubcap that dropped off his pickup truck not too long ago.
That's all part of his job.
Joseph is park manager at Talbot Islands State Park, a job he's held since 1987. "I've invested a lot of my life out here, and I hope it's been for good," he said.
It's been a quarter century in a coastal paradise, he freely admits. Others agree.
"I believe it's a coveted job that he has," said Barbara Goodman, superintendent of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, the national park that shares borders with the state lands.
"I wish I had his job. That wouldn't be so bad," said Mark Middlebrook, head of the St. Johns River Alliance, an environmental group.
Joseph is 6-2, or thereabouts, with a goatee and a full head of shaggy gray hair beneath his green ranger's hat. He's 59, a graduate of Fletcher High School who grew up in Atlantic Beach, at a time when much of the north end of that city was undeveloped dunes and hammocks ripe for exploring, which he did.
As a young man, he saw Colorado and was wowed. His father, though, had always told him of the subtle beauty of life at the edge of a salt marsh. "I know what he meant now," Joseph said. "It gets in your blood."
Talbot Islands State Park has grown over the years. It takes in Big and Little Talbot islands as well as a park at the southern tip of Amelia Island. It includes the fishing bridge across Nassau Sound. It includes Fort George Island Cultural State Park, with its Ribault Club mansion, restored during his watch. It includes Yellow Bluff Fort on the St. Johns River, as well as the sprawling Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve to the north.
The park expects to break a million visitors this year, some five times more than when Joseph took over.
Several times in a conversation, he calls himself a land manager, not a park ranger. And he talks of the "noble cause" of saving places for the next generations.
"As these lands become little green islands, as Florida develops, they'll be appreciated more as gems," he said.
It's personal for him: He had a nightmare once in which he was driving his son to school and passed by Big Talbot Island, to find a swath of it covered by a wall of 12-story condos. He woke up, he said, in a cold sweat.
Joseph is painstakingly careful not to claim credit for changes and improvements; he dislikes having the focus on him. Credit, he says, should go to those he's worked with over the years.
"I've had a number of people who -- if I'm proud of something -- told me that this was probably their favorite job," he said.
Joseph worked at state parks at Fort Clinch, Flagler Beach, Anastasia Island and Long Key before coming to Talbot.
He lives in Fernandina Beach now, but he spent more than two decades in the modest ranger's house on Little Talbot Island, where an alligator and snakes were his closest neighbors. He and his wife, Frances, raised their son, Bobby, now 26, there.
His job, which pays about $59,000 a year, involves a desk work and meetings: The state park works with private contractors for things such as weddings at the Ribault Club, Segway tours, horseback riding and kayak trips.
It also involves cooperating with Jacksonville City Hall and the national park. They and the state have properties and projects that bump up against each other in the northeastern corner of Duval County.
Goodman has worked with Joseph for 16 years as superintendent of the national park. Working together has been crucial to keep much of that chunk of the county in its natural state, she said. "None of us would have been able to accomplish what we've accomplished without that."
Middlebrook, who worked on preservation projects for the city of Jacksonville for years, called Joseph an "unsung hero."
"Florida parks have been designated nationally twice as the best park system in the nation," Middlebrook said. "I think he's emblematic of a lot of people in the park system who really care about the parks they manage, and he's clearly at the top of the class when it comes to that."
Joseph won't say how much longer he plans to work. But he talks of projects that will continue after he's gone, including one he's proud of that will result in a bicycling path from Hanna Park to Amelia Island. One smooth chunk of that has been finished on Big Talbot Island, and a section on Amelia Island opens within a few weeks.
It's all part of his plans to address the one drawback to his coastal paradise: How to get from one place to another without having to get back out on Florida A1A, which he calls a home for fast-moving BMWs and slow-moving fishermen who never hurried a day in their lives.
He's gotten to know the place well.
"I hope I didn't bore you," he said, after taking visitors on a six-hour tour of he park properties. "It's a pretty place out here. I don't get bored with it, so why would you "
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
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