Work to safeguard longleaf pine forests in northwest Florida is getting a boost from a number of organizations, including Gulf Power Company.
The nearly one million dollar grant will support conservation efforts on more than 115,000 acres, including the recovery of at-risk wildlife. The lion’s share – $920,000 – is going for work on lands covered by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Plain Partnership.
“The partnership is a group of public and private landowners who collaborate on conservation projects; mainly in the longleaf pine ecosystem,” said GCPEP Director Vernon Compton. GCPEP oversees more than 1.3 million acres of land from the Florida-Alabama border east to the Choctawhatchee River – taking a landscape approach to conserve and restore.
“Replanting longleaf pine, and a lot of emphasis on just recovering habitat,” said Compton. “Much of that is through prescribed fire throughout the year; but also through other actions on the ground – any type of mechanical treatment that helps to recover that habitat.”
The fire-adapted longleaf pine ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres across the Southeast, but it’s been reduced to only about five percent of its historical range. Some of the wildlife that depends on the habitat are extremely rare, and their numbers are declining.
“The ones that we’re really centered on are the Bob White quail; gopher tortoise, the reticulated flatwood salamander, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the eastern indigo snake,” Compton said. “We’re just trying to get these different natural communities that you find in the longleaf pine ecosystem back in good shape.”
Gulf Power is partnering with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other groups with the 2018 round of Longleaf Stewardship Fund grants. Spokeswoman Kimberly Blair says the utility has a long history of environmental stewardship work, including a 15-year partnership with the Foundation.
“During that time, we have supported grants that total $6 million that have come to our service area between here and Panama City,” Blair says. “It’s not just about maintaining our lands; it’s also about investing in our communities.”
Included in the grant is a provision for conserving at least two aforementioned species – one of them is the reticulated flatwood salamander.
“And what’s really unique about this is that in our Gulf Power service area, we have 27 of the known 29 breeding areas in the Southeast for these salamanders,” said Blair. “So really, it’s incumbent to us to support the recovery of the species.”
As with GCPEP’s “landscape approach,” Gulf Power and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation look for projects that have a “landscape impact,” which means they don’t stop at county lines.
“Like for instance, the Longleaf Alliance – their work and some of the money that we have supported through them – also moves into the Conecuh Forest which is at the north end of Santa Rosa County, because it’s part of the Blackwater River State Forest.”
The grant also will provide for a new project to support another affected species — the Bob White quail — whose habitat is in the Conecuh National Forest. The participants are students from the University of West Florida, and it’s overseen by Phil Darby, who chairs the Department of Biology.
“A lot of times they’re just called “Bob White,” said Darby. “It’s one of the most popular game species in North America; their range is primarily the Southeast. Their populations are very dependent on particular habitat management and habitat availability.”
Bob Whites are not an endangered species, but a loss of habitat has their numbers down. The UWF project will focus on a particular tract in the Conecuh called “Boggy Hollow.” It’s been identified as having great potential to recover a local quail population.
“The longleaf pine ecosystem that we’re focusing on in terms of our work, only three percent of the longleaf pine that existed a couple of hundred years ago exist today,” Darby says. “Some of it has to do with fire suppression because longleaf pine ecosystems are dependent on frequent burning. And the quail benefit from that.”
Students majoring in biology are being sought for this study, but Darby says in past projects there have been environmental and earth sciences majors as well.
“We really do need half a dozen students or so,” said Darby. “It’s a pretty large-scale project, there’s a lot of sampling that needs to be done in a fairly short period of time.”
The funding from the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Plain Partnership will also provide money to rescue gopher tortoises from construction sites in central and south Florida, for relocation to conservation lands on Eglin Air Force Base.