Grooming future conservationists, reintroducing keystone species to their natural habitat and teaching private landowners to join longleaf pine forests restoration efforts in our region are among the projects being funded in this year’s Gulf Power-supported Gulf Coast Conservation Grant Program and Longleaf Stewardship Fund.

On a recent trip to Blackwater River State Forest, Jeff Cole, Gulf Power’s Environmental Stewardship coordinator, inspects a cluster of longleaf pines growing in several stages, from the grass stage to the bottlebrush stage on the far left.

Gulf Coast Conservation Grant Program Project

The Gulf Coast Conservation Grant Program will fund the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife, which will use the grant to promote water conservation best management practices on 6,000 acres of agricultural lands within the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. The project will protect river flow to benefit habitat for six federally listed mussel species, Gulf sturgeon and a host of other endemic species native to the Chipola River and ACF basin.

Longleaf Stewardship Fund Projects

Additionally, in partnership with its parent company, Southern Company, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other partners, Gulf Power is supporting $5.5 million in Longleaf Stewardship Fund grants for 24 community-led projects that will continue important work to support, restore and enhance the longleaf ecosystem across the Southeast.

Among the Longleaf projects, there are three in and adjoining the Gulf Power service territory in Northwest Florida that will help continue restoration work that specifically supports the recovery of imperiled species and the expansion of the native landscape impacted by decades of development and logging.

“Gulf Power understands that playing a role in restoring the ecosystem is intrinsically linked to the quality of life of our customers and economic viability of the region we serve,” said Jeff Cole, Gulf Power’s Environmental Stewardship coordinator. “By investing in a landscape approach to restoration through this grant program, the projects being funded make a larger impact on critical habitat countless plants and wildlife species depend upon. We’re happy to continue a long history of supporting these grants and providing volunteers to help with the work on the ground.”

  • The Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance will establish 862 acres of longleaf pine and improve more than 25,000 acres of existing longleaf habitat through the use of prescribed fire and planting of native groundcover on public and private lands. The project will benefit Tyndall Air Force Base, improving habitat both on and off the base for numerous wildlife species including the eastern indigo snake, a federally threatened species, as well as the gopher tortoise and Bachman’s sparrow.
Longleaf pines once dominated the Southeast United States. Demand for the timber and turpentine throughout the 1800s decimated the forests. The fire-dependent pine is one of the longest-lived southern pines, some reaching 250 years old.

“The $300,000 grant is definitely one of the major grants that keep us going,” said Brian Pelc, The Nature Conservancy Restoration specialist.

The Nature Conservancy is one of more than a dozen public and private landowners on both sides of the Apalachicola River that make up the Alliance. The grant will also help continue a forestry management program with the Boy Scouts in February, in partnership with other agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservancy Commission.

“The scouts come out and learn about such things as longleaf pine and ground restoration, the red-cockaded woodpecker and prescribed burns,” Pelc said. “We’re trying to grow a generation of new land managers. For many young people, it’s not a career consideration but it’s essential because we’re facing a lack of recruits in the pipeline. It’s a good opportunity for mostly city kids to get out into the woods.”

  • The Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership will establish 333 acres of longleaf pine and improve an additional 55,350 acres of existing longleaf habitat through prescribed fire and private landowner outreach and technical assistance. The project will translocate 140 gopher tortoises, a candidate species for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act, to high-quality, managed land. And the grant will provide technical assistance and educational opportunities for private landowners, including a longleaf academy to teach them how to restore their own lands.

Vernon Compton, director of the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership, said a large part of the $300,000 grant his organization has been awarded will be used in the Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa County.

“We’re super excited to get this grant,” he said. “This is very important to the restoration effort and a critical component of the many success we’re seeing on the ground across the longleaf pine range and habitat improvement.”

The grant dollars will also support the reintroduction of the gopher tortoise to the Eglin Air Force Base Reservation and the Conecuh National Forest, which adjoins Blackwater River State Forest to its north in Alabama.

“Thanks to habitat restoration on these sites, they are ready for the keystone species to be reintroduced,” he said. “They will be saved from places in Central Florida that are being developed, where they would have been lost or entombed. We’ll dig them out and save them and truck them up here.”

Compton explained the longleaf pines were once the dominant ecosystem in the Southeast United States. Clearcutting to make way for farms, plantations and urban development, extensive logging, along with the suppression of fire critical to the germination of the pine’s seedlings led to a dramatic decline in the ecosystem.

  • The Longleaf Alliance, Inc. and partners will translocate 60 red-cockaded woodpeckers to properties designated as recovery sites by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a $169,000 grant. The project involves managing and improving 6,000 acres of longleaf pine forest and providing high-quality habitat for the woodpecker’s nesting and foraging.

Ralph Costa, a wildlife biologist leading the project, said the birds will be taken from the Apalachicola National Forest. The forest has thriving populations thanks in part to longleaf pine habitat restoration funded with Gulf Power-supported grants. Those birds will be sent to Mississippi, Alabama and South Florida.

The red-cockaded woodpecker, once common to the southeastern United States, is now considered endangered. But through relocation program — many of them funded by Gulf-supported grants for more than 13 years — Costa said their numbers are growing, a trend that underscores the success of longleaf pine restoration efforts.

“These birds are driving longleaf pine restoration because, in the places we are moving the birds, the habitat has to be in prime condition,” Costa said.

The grants are part of NFWF’s Longleaf Stewardship Fund, a public/private partnership that includes Southern Company, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Paper’s Forestland Stewards Initiative and Altria.

The Longleaf Stewardship Fund builds on the success of the Longleaf Legacy program, a partnership between Southern Company and NFWF, which for eight years invested more than $8.7 million in projects to restore more than 87,000 acres of longleaf pine forest and the native species that rely on the habitat.