■ SUE ERWIN
Gasparilla Island State Park Ranger Jon Dillard loves being outdoors.
And in October of 2015, he landed a job in an ideal place to launch his career.
Jon is from Clermont, Florida and attended school in the small town just west of Orlando. Jon said it used to be a quiet, rural town but has since grown into one of the larger suburbs of the Orlando area. Ever since he was a young boy, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in environmental science.
“I’ve always been an outdoorsman, and I knew I wanted to work in the environmental sector, particularly in the parks system,” he said.
He attended Florida State University and graduated in 2013.
And of course he’s a big ‘Noles fan.
He is fascinated by science and enjoyed most of the courses required for his degree, among them biology, chemistry and geography.
After he graduated from college, he was immediately offered a corporate job with Bridgestone, which he accepted.
“I’m a big automotive person and I enjoy working on cars, and I was offered a job on the spot,” Jon said. “And I was about to graduate and really needed the job.”
He spent months applying to parks jobs around the country and hadn’t heard anything back. It was 2013 and there were government cutbacks in the industry, making it very difficult to find entry-level work. So he worked as a manager at Bridgestone for a year and also did recruiting for the company. But it wasn’t his passion. So he resigned from that job and continued searching for jobs within the state parks system. He traveled to more than 20 states, interviewing for positions all around the country. He did some landscaping jobs along the way to keep some cash flow.
“I traveled the country and chased the jobs down. And then I just got lucky and found this position, and it’s exactly where I wanted to be,” he said.
He was about ready to give up on pursuing a parks career and go to graduate school, and he said this was the last job he was going to apply for.
His work duties include an array of things, from turtle patrol to maintaining park facilities and resources.
“We have more than two miles of beach, so we keep very accurate records and logs of all the sea turtle activity, and we work closely with FWC and share our data,” Jon said. “We also have 200 acres of natural land that we manage, 90 of which are preserved property that most people don’t even visit. That land is untouched, and it looks just as it would have 100 years ago.”
There are two rangers, a park service specialist and two parks managers.
The rangers spend a lot of time working to remove invasive plant species from the island, as well as removing iguanas from the ecosystem. They also monitor shorebirds, especially the endangered ones like the snowy plover. They manage four parks: Gasparilla Island State Park, Cayo Costa State Park, Don Pedro Park and Stump Pass. They also work with state biologists and wildlife officials.
“We do a lot of things that most people don’t see,” he said. “While we do spend a lot of time at the beaches, there are always several projects in the works.”
On the day of this interview, Jon had plans to help rebuild a beach access boardwalk at Gasparilla Island State Park.
“We wear many different hats – we are carpenters, plumbers, electricians and mechanics as well as guides for visitors.”
Jon said the park rangers have a variety of backgrounds, so they often train each other when it comes to working on projects, depending on the skillset involved. The Barrier Island Park Society (BIPS) is the community support organization that partners with the park system and provides outreach programs with the public.
“We work together with them on fundraisers, charity events and other interpretive programs,” Jon said.
Jon currently lives in Rotonda with his girlfriend, Jordan, and they have a cat named Percy.
“It’s very peaceful there,” he said. “And Percy is like having another little personality that brightens the household.”
Jon and Jordan met at Florida State University five years ago.
“We actually are from the same town, but we didn’t know each other until college,” he said. “We knew all the same people, but somehow we hadn’t met each other.”
They met on a commuter bus that linked the town to the college. They both moved back to their hometown after college until Jon found his position in Boca Grande. Jordan works as a front desk receptionist at the Boca Grande Club.
Jon is an avid fisherman, and he loves living in this area. He prefers to kayak and fish in the backcountry shallow water and in some of the smaller creeks around the harbor.
“I like the go and explore the swampy areas that you can’t really get to with a boat,” he said. He also enjoys playing the guitar and even tried to pursue it professionally. He moved to Nashville and competed along with many others, but decided that that scene wasn’t for him.
“The music world is rough, and I didn’t really want to live that show business lifestyle,” he said. So he moved back to Clermont. As one might imagine, the hobbies of this park ranger include hunting, camping and hiking whenever he gets the chance. He also likes to work on old cars and motorcycles. Jon and Jordan will be heading up to Michigan this summer for a vacation. They’ll be spending some time at a lake house with John’s grandparents in August.
“It will be a nice break from the hot summer weather, and we’re looking forward to seeing the fall colors,” he said. “It’s the same cabin my grandfather would go to when he was a kid, and he rediscovered it about 20 years ago. Every year he goes there with my grandma, and this year they invited us to go with them.”
Jon considers himself a pretty simple guy. He enjoys going on new adventures and also just relaxing at home. “I don’t like making things overly complicated,” he said. Being a fisherman, he said he loves working in Boca Grande because of the world-class tarpon fishing associated with the island.
“This island just lives and breathes the fishing lifestyle,” he said. “On any given day, you can take a walk around town and run into fishing captains, people who’ve just spent the entire day out on a boat or even famous television personalities who love to fish. And my job of helping protect these precious resources makes me very proud.”
Jon has one younger sister, Alyssa, who is seven. His parents, Barbara and Jon, still live and work in Clermont.
When asked to name a person he admires most in life, his answer wasn’t typical.
“I admire men with integrity, with a strong vision for what seems to be the right thing to do – Teddy Roosevelt is a big hero of mine,” he said.
The next time you’re headed to one of the barrier island parks, look for Jon diligently fulfilling his duties as a park ranger and keeping the parks maintained and running smoothly.