Gulf Power’s Plant Crist and Environmental Affair’s stewardship teams spent a recent day volunteering in Blackwater River State Forest to help make sure hunters, hikers and other users don’t get lost.

Gulf Power Plant Crist employees, Colette Clark and Aubrey Garrett, prepare to paint road posts in Blackwater River State Forest, Florida, as part of their environmental stewardship volunteer workday.

Sixteen employees teamed up with forestry staff and fanned out in the 211,000-acre forest, where a maze of paved and dirt roads crisscross through the massive pine landscape. Armed with maps, dotted with stars denoting the signposts, they hunted for the weathered concrete pillars, some barely readable.

One-by-one they scraped off flaking paint and years of dirt, rolled on a new coat of bright, yellow paint and stenciled on road names. The newly painted posts stood out like beacons against the dark greens and browns of the forest.

The posts have not been repainted since 2011. Eric Howell, Forestry resource administrator, said his staff had completed maintenance on about half of the signs on the 800-plus miles of roads through the forest, but they still had 250 remaining.

“These volunteers were very helpful to our crews who have been busy with other projects,” he said. “Our road and fire crews have been deploying for wildfires and hurricanes and working on road washouts, and we’ve not been able to get this project done.”

While the project seemed simple, it took time for the Gulf Power team to travel to each post, clear away brush and hunt through a bucket of letters and numbers to assemble the street names inside of a stencil. They were able to complete about a fifth of the posts needing painting, progress Howell said is a “huge step forward.”

Gulf Power Environmental Affairs employees Ryan Cowart, left, and Kirsti Mitchell, right, assemble letters on a stencil they’ll use to repaint one of the hundreds of road posts needing fresh coats of paint in the massive Blackwater River State Forest. Without the posts, hunters, hikers and other users could easily get lost.

Volunteer workdays are part of the mission of the Gulf Power’s Environmental Stewardship program that focuses on protecting, conserving and restoring the region’s ecosystem. Employees volunteer several times a year to help organizations from Pensacola through Panama City with projects that benefit the environment and the people who use the environmental resources.

Jeff Cole, Gulf Power’s Stewardship coordinator, said this is the first time the company has volunteered for the state forestry service.

“Gulf Power with our parent company, Southern Company, have supported Longleaf Stewardship Fund grants that have helped with restoration in the Blackwater River State Forest,” he said. “We wanted to get our employees out to see what’s being done and help out the forestry service with maintenance. Having these roads marked clearly and all of the names updated and repainted where they are visible, really helps people more enjoy the forest instead of riding around lost.”
Jeff Cole, left, organizes Environmental Stewardship volunteer workdays for employees to help out organizations and ecosystems, which receive Gulf Power-supported grants that restore and protect the environment.

Cole has a special affinity for the area, having grown up in north Santa Rosa County.

“It’s an impressive forest,” he said. “It covers the whole north ends of Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. Blackwater River and Coldwater Creek and a lot of other interesting creeks run through it that you can canoe and enjoy. There’s a lot of recreational activities for the public out here, and I’ve always enjoyed it my whole life.”

Ryan Cowart, Environmental Affairs engineer, was volunteering for the second environmental stewardship day since joining Gulf Power in 2016, and he was impressed with the forest.

“I’m in the office most of the time, so I enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the community and its recreational opportunities and how we can help out,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve been to this state forest. I’ve been to Tuskegee National Forest in Alabama, but this place is much larger and has nicer roads and better signage.”

Plant Crist employee Nam Nguyen, scrapes dirt and old paint off of one of the post before it gets a new coat of paint. The volunteer workdays provide an opportunity for Gulf Power employees to engage the community and learn about the natural resources in the utility’s service area.

The workday opportunity gave Michael Weeden, Gulf Power’s newest Environmental Affairs cooperative student from the University of West Florida, a taste of what the Land Management degree he’s pursuing could entail.

“I never thought I’d be painting sign posts,” he said. “I’m enjoying it.”

Learn more about Gulf Power’s Environmental Stewardship in “Our Promise.”

 Want to explore the Blackwater River State Forest?

Maps are available to download free online and for $7 at the forest office at 11650 Munson Highway, Milton.