For years, the longleaf pine savannahs across the southeastern United States had been disappearing from over use such as logging, farming, fire and industrialization. As the forests went, so did the home of some of the most diverse wildlife in the country.
Now with the help of recently announced grants, these ecosystems across the southeast are being restored and re-established to once again provide important food and cover for many birds, reptiles and small mammals.
The Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance and the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership are the recipients of two of 10 grants recently awarded by Gulf Power and its parent company, Southern Company. The grants will support wildlife protection and natural resource conservation, and locally plant 2,200 acres of longleaf pine, and improve 57,000 acres of existing longleaf habitat in the region.
The grants are part of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Longleaf Stewardship Fund, a public/private partnership that includes Southern Company, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and International Paper. Ten of the 21 projects receiving grants are within the Southern Company service area.
“Gulf Power prides itself on working to create a positive impact on our region’s environment and strengthen our communities,” said Rick DelaHaya, Gulf Power spokesperson. “We have a long history of environmental stewardship and these grants will strengthen the restoration efforts of the longleaf pine in Northwest Florida and the native wildlife it supports.”
Covering more than one million acres across nine counties in Northwest Florida, the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance is helping to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem and improve wildlife habitats. This national “hot spot” of biodiversity covers Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Liberty, Gadsen, Franklin, Wakulla and Leon Counties and stretches from the Apalachicola River corridor, barrier islands, to a large portion of the Big Bend.
The grant will allow the Alliance to plant more than 1,800 acres of longleaf pine, while another 21,000 acres of existing longleaf habitat will be improved through prescribed fire, removal of invasive plants, and planting native groundcover. The grants will also allow for the education of private landowners on groundcover restoration, fire planning and invasive species management.
The project will also reintroduce the once threatened eastern indigo snake back into the region, an iconic part of the longleaf pine ecosystem for millions of years according to Brian Pelc, restoration project manager for the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance.
The largest non-venomous snake in Florida, the indigo has been on the threatened species list since 1978 due to capture for the domestic and international pet trade.
“Eastern Indigos are the largest non-venomous snake in Florida and are essential in controlling populations of small mammals, frogs and other amphibians, and even other snakes,” said Pelc. “Thanks to the ongoing support of Gulf Power and years of sandhill restoration in Liberty County, it has resulted in a rebounding gopher tortoise population and an abundance of burrows to re-establish an indigo snake population. Bringing Eastern indigo snakes back to northwestern Florida will provide the essential food chain management that only top predators can, and will act as a testament to the quality and scale of habitat restoration in the region.”
In a similar project within Gulf Power’s service territory, the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership will plant 374 acres of longleaf pine and improve more than 36,000 acres of existing longleaf habitat. The restoration will take place on the Yellow River Ravines, an important corridor connecting Eglin Air Force Base to the larger Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa County and Conecuh National Forest in Alabama
According to Vernon Compton, project director for GCPEP, the grant will help the 14 public and private partners work together to restore and manage the unique ecosystem that is home to diverse and abundant wildlife and plant species. By working together, he said, the partners found they can accomplish more effective and efficient conservation work on the ground.
“The Longleaf Stewardship Grant awarded to GCPEP this year will increase the amount of longleaf planting, prescribed fire, invasive species control, and wildlife habitat improvement work that occurs on public and private lands,” said Compton. “Habitat restored to a healthy condition provides a better environment for the wildlife species found in this system. Rare species will also benefit from these efforts including the gopher tortoise, flatwood salamander, red-cockaded woodpecker, and eastern indigo snake.”
The Longleaf Stewardship Fund builds on the success of the Longleaf Legacy program, a partnership between Gulf Power, Southern Company and NFWF, which for eight years invested more than $8.7 million to restore more than 87,000 acres of forest and the native species that rely on it. Another 20,000 acres were restored through the company’s closely aligned Power of Flight program with NFWF.
Unique to the United States, the majestic longleaf pine ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres across nine states, from Virginia to Texas. But because of timbering, development and other factors, the longleaf forest declined over the past century to less than 3 percent of its original area.
In recent years, thanks to the public-private commitment to restoration, land devoted to longleaf pine has increased from roughly 3 million acres to an estimated 4.7 million acres, reversing decades of decline and benefiting many threatened and endangered species that depend on the habitat.