It’s a strategic investment in time and commitment that will help restore a small pocket of the iconic Southern forest.

Scott Jordan, a forester with Gulf Power’s land department, is coordinating an effort to help restore about 900 acres of longleaf in the Gulf Power-owned Caryville property in Holmes County.

The longleaf seedlings been planted on an area that was cleared and then treated with prescribed fire to stoke the longleaf seedlings into growth.

The tiny seedlings look more like a grass than something that can grow to 100 feet tall and live more than 80 years. Even a 5-year-old longleaf looks more like a shrub than a tree that will dominate the landscape. But the root system probes deep toward the groundwater and rich soil for nutrients. When a natural or prescribed fire sweeps the area it spurs healthy growth.

The longleaf forest is host to one of the most diverse habitats on earth — sustaining some 600 species of plants and wildlife — including the red cockaded woodpecker.

“The longleaf is incredible for the kind of diversity it can promote and its ability to withstand and thrive with the introduction of fire,” Jordan said. “Our aim is to restore longleaf to a large part of Caryville and properly manage it to benefit the environment while generating some revenue.”

A timber management company had planted stands of loblolly pine close to 20 years ago, but over the years, the stands had turned stagnant. Trees that were planted on clear-cut land — all at the same time — had simply stopped growing. Trees stood crowded in rows so tight that they were competing for sunlight and for nutrients in the sparse, sandy soil.

Jordan bored into the core of some trees for samples that showed proof of the stagnation. Rings showed healthy growth for the first few years then tightened to show little growth over the past 10 years.

Caryville, which covers more than 2,200 acres in Holmes County, was purchased by Gulf Power as a possible future site for a generation facility. About 1,200 acres of the property is ideal for conservation and timber management.

It will take time, but restoring longleaf is worth the effort. The longleaf forest once carpeted more than 90 million acres of the Southeast. Less than 3 percent of that remains after decades of overharvesting in the 1900s decimated the forest. Longleaf stands were replaced with loblolly and slash pine plantations — which grow faster but yield a lower quality wood product.

Gulf Power manages some 12,000 acres throughout its service territory. The Land department has recently turned to responsible timber management on some of these areas, generating about $240,000 over the past two years.

“The way they harvested and grew timber back then did not promote a healthy forest,” Jordan said. “But we have learned that by bringing back the longleaf, we can help restore a sustainable native forest.”

The longleaf will be managed responsibly, thinning trees for timber and production of other products, while promoting the growth of a healthy, mature forest.

This longleaf project is parallel to other efforts throughout the Southeast. Gulf Power, through Southern Company, is participating in a long-term partnership to restore longleaf in the Southeast. The Longleaf Stewardship Fund expands on the progress made with the Longleaf Legacy program, extending stewardship efforts throughout the Southeast.

For the past 10 years, longleaf-targeted projects in Florida have helped restore more than 17,700 acres of longleaf forests, planting close to 10.2 million seedlings and enhancing more than 122,000 acres of critical habitat in Northwest Florida in areas such as Blackwater River State Forest, Apalachicola National Forest, Eglin Air Force Base and on private and public lands.

“It will take time, but we are doing our part to responsibly manage this property for our customers,” Jordan said. “And we are helping promote the recovery of a very important, naturally diverse native forest for Northwest Florida.”