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Citizen Participation: One Voice

Springs protection is largely a local issue. It requires action by citizens to affect change in local land planning policies. Learn how one person's lifelong passion helped protect a local spring.

William Shirling

One Voice Speaks Volumes for Springs Protection

Image of William Shirling's explorations and documentation of the Holmes Creek basin in Washington County led to the discovery of 51 new springs and recognition by local and state governmental agencies of the significance this unique ecosystem.Zoom+ William Shirling's explorations and documentation of the Holmes Creek basin in Washington County led to the discovery of 51 new springs and recognition by local and state governmental agencies of the significance this unique ecosystem.

By Peter Lane Taylor

When I first heard about the story of William Shirling, I thought it was too good to be true. I had been searching for someone who had individually contributed to the conservation of a local spring, and given the complexities of protecting any spring, I thought it was a tall order to fill. Then I read about Shirling.

Born in Lakeland in 1950, Shirling is a fourth generation Floridian-a Cree Indian descendant. Though his parents eventually moved away to Georgia, William grew up a native of Washington County and near a spring-run named Holmes Creek where he spent every summer at his grandmother's house swimming, fishing, and boating with friends. When he was alone, he would explore new areas by walking through the dense wetlands, often discovering spring seeps and sand boils along the creek channel. Later in life, when he introduced the crystal, blue waters to his own daughter, Shirling's life-long connection to Holmes Creek came full circle.

Shirling knew that in order to help protect Holmes Creek, he would have to help others experience it the way he had.

Shirling's connection to the place never waned and even grew as he became concerned about development pressures that he believed would impact Holmes Creek. He knew that in order to help protect the place that he so loved, he would have to help others understand and experience it the way he had. This included finding a way to obtain designation for Holmes Creek as an "Outstanding Florida Water," a State of Florida designation that affords special protection to rivers and creeks and other bodies of water.

Image of Galloway spring, one of the many springs, large and small, that feed into Holmes Creek.Zoom+ Galloway spring, one of the many springs, large and small, that feed into Holmes Creek. © William Shirling

Shirling knew his efforts would require more than his personal passion; it would take information and data to help demonstrate the importance of this spring ecosystem.

"I knew we needed as much information as soon as possible," Shirling explains, describing the challenge of convincing others that Holmes Creek and the springs feeding into it were worthy of attention and protection. "I had to bring Holmes Creek to those who could help protect it."

Yet, as any trained field scientist knows, that's a lot easier said than done. Exploring and studying a large ecosystem can be a monumental effort taking years. But that's exactly what Shirling did, just as he did decades ago when he played at Holmes Creek as a child-- he went exploring.

Between the spring of 2000 and the summer of 2001, Shirling walked, trudged, boated, and slashed his way along the entire 32-mile length of the creek.

In the process, he discovered and mapped 51 small springs associated with Holmes Creek that were previously unknown to the local water management district and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He also introduced researchers and scientists to new areas where they discovered three endemic snails, two imperiled fish species, and along the upper portion of the river, a spring and wetland system that was new to science and not described in scientific literature.

By accurately describing, photographing, and locating with global positioning system (GPS) technology all of the springs along the creek, he also accumulated more information on the Holmes Creek watershed than exists for possibly any other spring ecosystem in Florida. His efforts also put Holmes Creek several steps closer to designation as an "Outstanding Florida Water."

Image of Dr. Fred G. Thompson, Curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, sets out on a two-day sampling and assessment trip along Holmes Creek. As a result of this trip, Dr. Thompson collected and identified three species of endemic snail species.Zoom+ Dr. Fred G. Thompson, Curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, sets out on a two-day sampling and assessment trip along Holmes Creek. As a result of this trip, Dr. Thompson collected and identified three species of endemic snail species. © William Shirling

Because of his unique understanding of Holmes Creek and the spring ecosystem, Shirling was also designated as one of the DEP's first Springs Volunteer Coordinators. In this role he serves as a local citizen expert on spring issues in Washington County, sharing his knowledge with local officials as well as educating others about the importance of springs.

What's most inspiring about Shirling's story, however, is neither its outcome nor his tenacity. It's his humility about the experience. Shirling admits to knowing nothing about the process of learning about a spring ecosystem or what to do with the information if it even amounted to something.

"When it was time for me to step up to the plate, I had no idea what was in store and what amount of dedication would be required to make an impact. I just knew I had to put Holmes Creek as a priority," Shirling recounts. "If you are going to be the voice for wilderness, you have to remain focused, yet objective. And, most importantly, make sure your passion speaks for you."

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