Hurricane Michael wiped out millions of trees when it cut a wide path across Northwest Florida. A year later, many large landowners are struggling to figure out how to pay for the costly cleanup and restoration that’s threatening to uproot their future.

Some three million acres of trees were destroyed or damaged when Hurricane Michael buzz-sawed a path through the eastern edge of Northwest Florida on Oct. 10, 2018.

Damage Hurricane Michael inflicted on the northwest Florida timber basket will take decades to restore.

A year later, large private landowners are still struggling with how to pay for the costly cleanup and replant new trees. Even with federal aid and selling some of the damaged trees to loggers, they are faced with a cost-share they cannot afford.

Thanks to a $40,000 Gulf Power Foundation Amplify! grant awarded to the Florida Wildlife Federation two of these landowners that live east of Panama City, Brenda Ward and Bruce Huffmaster, are receiving much-needed help to deal with the devastation. The grant is earmarked for the restoration of timberland destroyed by Michael.

Ward could not be more grateful. Tears filled her eyes last week as she scanned the land surrounding her home,147 acres of mostly slash pine mixed with longleaf pine and Atlantic white cedar where nearly every tree — roughly 25,000 — are either twisted, snapped or dangerously leaning. Like many of the trees within Michael’s path, Ward’s are rotting, attracting pests and creating a wildfire hazard. Nearly every one of them needs to be cleared and new trees replanted. It’s a job a retired school teacher could never afford.

“Devastated,” Ward said describing both the scenery and her emotions. “I’ve put so much of me into this property. It’s hard to take. But receiving this help from Gulf Power has been the brightest spot in all of this. I can now look at this and say, I can work on this with the help of the Gulf Power grant.”

Brenda Ward lives about 10 miles north of Mexico Beach and was in the direct path of Hurricane Michael’s eyewall that wiped out the beautiful forests she used to love looking at from her screened porch.

Ward already spent thousands of dollars clearing trees from around her house and road. The grant dollars will pay for the rest of the clearing and a prescribed burn to prepare the land for the planting of up to 600 longleaf pines per acre.

Hurricane Michael blew down about 20 percent of Huffmaster’s 65 acres of healthy stands of longleaf in various stages of growth. The damaged trees scattered throughout the thick stands are posing a unique challenge.

“We can’t get machines in here,” said Huffmaster. “Machines would run down healthy trees. I can’t do it myself.”

Bruce Huffmaster, left, talks to Stan Rosenthal, a forest advocate with the Florida Wildlife Federation, about the plans to restore his longleaf pine forest with Gulf Power Amplify! grant dollars.

With the Amplify! grant, the job that would have taken Huffmaster years to do alone will now be reduced to a matter of weeks by hiring a crew who can knock the job out by hand in several days.

Without the grant, Stan Rosenthal, a Florida Wildlife Federation forest advocate, said Huffmaster’s property is at risk of declining and not reaching its potential.

Mike Markey, Gulf Power environmental services director, who was on the selection committee for the environmental grants, said Florida Wildlife Federation was chosen as one of five Amplify! environmental grant recipients because it promotes the health and welfare of native fish and wildlife, supporting Gulf Power’s stewardship legacy.

“Florida Wildlife Federation is providing support and education for the re-planting of damaged areas in longleaf pine,” he said. “Gulf Power has been a long supporter of replanting longleaf pine in Northwest Florida, which is key to supporting threatened and endangered species.”

The one-time grant opportunity is meant to elevate the good work of nonprofits in our service area and continue Gulf Power’s mission to build strong, sustainable communities where all Northwest Floridians are living vibrant, healthy and prosperous lives.

Stan Rosenthal, Florida Wildlife Federation forestry advocate, points out damaged trees entangled with healthy trees on Huffmaster’s land.

Rosenthal said Ward and Huffmaster are perfect benefactors of the grant because of their deep love and stewardship of their lands. Both of them inherited their property from family and have been working with state conservation agencies, restoring the native longleaf pine habit to enhance wildlife populations and get a greater return on timber they sell to sustain their lands.

“Brenda will never see in our lifetime her land return to what it was before Michael,” Rosenthal said. “Without the Amplify grant, I would have told her to sell the land. But with the grant dollars, we can get it back on the clock going in the right direction faster so it can be restored for future generations.”

That’s Huffmaster’s goal.

“We always wanted a spot to go to and be in nature and be able to give something back to nature,” Huffmaster said. “These kinds of sites are not as common as they used to be with all of the development in the state. The bird population has reduced by 30% in the last decade, and we’d like to create a pocket of native habitat for all of the birds and deer and other wildlife to live, breed and thrive. I want my grandchildren to be able to see and enjoy the native ecosystem.”