The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, an hour west of Tallahassee, Florida, protects nearly 6,300 acres of restored sandhill habitat. Young longleaf pines stand in thick waves of golden wiregrass. Wild turkey, bobwhite quail, gopher tortoise and Florida pine snake once again populate what 25 years ago were rows of industrial timber and bare sand.
About 50 people recently toured the preserve to see for themselves the beauty and benefits of the longleaf pine, many of them landowners interested in restoring stands on their properties. They learned how The Nature Conservancy hand planted millions of longleaf pine seedlings and wiregrass plugs.
Foresters from Florida Forest Service explained how regular prescribed burns promoted the growth of native groundcover and kept hardwood and invasive species in check. Biologists from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission discussed how wildlife is managed in longleaf pine forests.
The visitors found a lot to like. Longleaf pine is resistant to pests and disease; it produces a clear, straight wood free of defects, withstands drought and fire and provides habitat for a host of wildlife. It takes 100-150 years for a longleaf pine to reach full size of 100-120 feet and can live to 300 years.
They saw the difference between similarly-aged sand, slash and longleaf pines, examined wiregrass seed heads and peered down gopher tortoise holes tucked into the wiregrass clumps. On adjacent private land, participants compared longleaf stands planted in 2002 and 2009 to replace slash pines. They learned how each stand was burned several times and wildlife openings were created for deer, turkey and quail.
Longleaf pine once covered 90 million acres from Texas to Florida, but today only 3 percent of the habitat remains. In an effort to reverse this, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides financial and technical assistance for conservation practices that help restore longleaf pine forests and enhance existing stands.
Restoring longleaf is a good option for private landowners, according to Brian Pelc, restoration specialist with The Nature Conservancy. “It is beneficial to the environment, economically and the wildlife,” he said.
Jack and Linda Polk planted 50 acres of longleaf pine last year on their farm seven miles west of Greensboro in northeast Liberty County. They have already seen gopher tortoises returning to the site, a species listed as threatened in several states because of the loss of longleaf habitat. Jack said he wanted to bring his land back to what it was, spreading his hands to indicate the surrounding longleaf savanna. “I came here today because you can always learn something new,” he said.