Grants will support conservation on more than 115,000 acres of longleaf pine forest and help recover populations of at-risk wildlife

Gulf Power in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other groups announced its 2018 round of Longleaf Stewardship Fund grants that will benefit habitat restoration and species recovery across Northwest Florida.

Photo: Longleaf Pine trees and native species
The new Longleaf Stewardship Fund will help restore and enhance more acreage like this, which once dominated the Southeast. This habitat supports a host of native species.

The lion’s share of the $1 million — $920,000 — has been awarded to Longleaf Alliance for work on Gulf Coast Ecosystem Plain Partnership lands. GCPEP is a collaboration of 15 public and private landowners with over 1.3 million acres of land that stretches from the Florida-Alabama border on the west, east to the Choctawhatchee River and includes the Conecuh Forest that adjoins the Blackwater River State Forest on the northern border of Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. The partners take a landscape approach to conserve and restore the dwindling longleaf pine ecosystem.

“This is the most money we’ve received at one time, and it’s a huge step for ecosystem restoration and rare species recovery in the landscape,” said Vernon Compton, the Alliance’s GCPEP director. “It will allow our Ecosystem Support Team to work across the landscape on multiple projects from helping with prescribed burns to invasive species control, and to do more work on species recovery. The Ecosystem Support Team is trained for the specialized and labor-intensive work rare species recovery requires.”

The grant dollars will be used to:

  • Restore and maintain 112,958 acres of longleaf pine habitat within the western panhandle of Florida and southern Alabama.
  • Prioritize and accelerate, in this same area, recovery of declining and at-risk species, including bobwhite quail, gopher tortoise and reticulated flatwood salamander.
  • Support local environmental conservation jobs.

There are only 29 known reticulated flatwood salamander breeding wetlands that have been recently occupied in the Southeast U.S. and 27 of them are on the GCPEP land in the Gulf Power service area. This new grant will allow the Ecosystem Support Team to do more work with partners to help save these rare salamanders.

The Wetland and Ecosystem Support Teams are installing fencing around a known breeding site for reticulated flatwood salamanders in preparation for breeding season. The area was burned, a process that would have happened naturally to control brush overgrowth before fires were suppressed in longleaf pine forests.

Video of salamander recovery work at https://youtu.be/lNzt-S2UuQE

“These salamanders are all part of the chain in nature,” Compton said. “If you have good conditions for salamanders then you have good conditions for many other rare or declining species too.”

The GCPEP funding will also provide more money for a project launched last year to rescue gopher tortoises from construction sites in Central and South Florida and relocate them to the Eglin Air Force Base conservation lands. The project’s goal is aimed at bolstering the populations to prevent the tortoises from being listed in 2023 under the federal Endangered Species Act, a development that could impact some of Eglin’s training and testing operations.

Thanks to these new grant dollars, a University of West Florida research team including students will be participating in a new project — the National Bobwhite Quail Initiative Focal Area will be developed to support bobwhite quail habitat restoration and recovery in the Conecuh Forest. Compton explained that the students will go into the forest and learn how to recognize the bird’s calls to conduct rare bird and quail research and monitoring, to determine if GCPEP habitat and species restoration efforts are successful.

Kaiden Spurlock, Ecosystem Support Team supervisor, checks on a red-cockaded woodpecker nest in the Blackwater River State Forest. He and his team also support partners that conduct controlled burns, which are critical to restoring and maintaining the fire-dependent longleaf habitat.

The fire-adapted longleaf pine ecosystem once encompassed more than 90 million acres across the Southeast, but it has been reduced to only about 5 percent of its historical range. It supports immense biodiversity and important game species such as the bobwhite quail, wild turkey and white-tailed deer.

“Gulf Power is proud to be able to support investments in projects that will help restore this rich ecosystem, enhance wildlife habitat and create recreation opportunities while engaging students and public and private landowners in important conservation work,” Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokesperson. “We have a long history of environmental stewardship and these grants will further strengthen the restoration efforts of the longleaf pine forests in Northwest Florida and the native wildlife it supports.”

The Ecosystem Support Team helps install and monitor red-cockaded woodpecker nesting cavity in longleaf pines, to help support the recovery of the species. The woodpecker does its part to protect its home by drilling small holes around its nests to excrete sticky sap to prevent predators from raiding the nest.

Other Longleaf Stewardship Fund dollars such as the one awarded to Tallahassee-based Tall Timbers will be at work in the Gulf Power service area with conservation assistance programs involving prescribed burns and an outreach program to enhance future longleaf restoration.

“The Longleaf Stewardship Fund exemplifies what can be achieved for conservation when the public and private sector work collaboratively on a landscape scale,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “Through investing in critical restoration activities and educating landowners to become stronger stewards of their lands, the Longleaf Stewardship Fund is helping secure the future of one of the world’s most biodiverse landscapes, and the species and communities that rely on it.”

A complete list of the 2018 grants made through the Longleaf Stewardship Fund is available here.

b-roll: https://youtu.be/XoZ0x4AeVAo Kaiden Spurlock, Longleaf Alliance Ecosystem Support Team manager, checks red-cockaded woodpecker nests his team maintains and monitors in a Longleaf Pine Forest in Blackwater River State Forest. And conservation workers with Longleaf Alliance help with a reticulated flatwood salamander pond project in a Northwest Florida forest to improve breeding success.