Close your eyes and imagine an ancient forest. Stately longleaf pines, some up to 500 years old, sigh overhead. Sunlight dances on masses of waving wiregrass; a red-cockaded woodpecker taps its signature knock. And look – bear tracks, there by the gopher tortoise burrow.
“A forest like this is rarer than a tropical rainforest,” says Callie DeHaven, a Nature Conservancy public lands protection manager. “Florida is lucky that the Blackwater River State Forest, located northeast of Pensacola, still remains.”
The state forest is a significant piece of the largest, contiguous longleaf pine/wiregrass forest complex in the world. Once blanketing the entire southeastern United States, only 3 percent of that vast forest survives today.
But here’s an eye-opener: Blackwater River State Forest is threatened from all sides, and even from within. The Conservancy has stepped up protection efforts, purchasing prime acreage either located within or connected to the forest. From 2007 to 2009 alone, it transferred almost 15,000 acres of those high-priority tracts to rejoin the state forest. The Conservancy also leads a regional partnership that is making a powerful stand.
Yes, It’s That Special
Considered by many as Florida’s premier state forest, Blackwater River State Forest – 209,571 acres and counting – is the bedrock of a conservation complex that hosts an amazing 300 species of birds and 2,500 species of plants. One of the most biologically rich areas in the U.S., the forest is part of a vital nature corridor that gently rolls from Conecuh National Forest along the Florida-Alabama state line to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Our protection goes beyond rare species,” continues DeHaven. “This forest is valuable to many people who connect to its lands and waters through hunting, fishing, tourism and the military. There’s also a culture of growing trees in the South that is part of our way of life and an economic driver. Good forestry practices help maintain the forests and clean water.”
Boating and Camping and Hikes, Oh My
Known as the “canoe capital of Florida,” the forest is chock-full of brilliant freshwater rivers and tributaries, including Blackwater River, Juniper Creek, Coldwater Creek and Yellow River. On the water, visitors might spot a rare Okaloosa darter or Flatwoods salamander.
Superb camping is available, and savvy hikers and birders know the forest as part of the Florida Scenic Trail and Great Florida Birding Trail. Sections are also open to swimming, fishing, hunting and horseback riding.
It isn’t all pine needles, however: Fragmentation of the forest remains its biggest threat.
“A map of Blackwater River State Forest looks like a puzzle with pieces missing,” says DeHaven. “It’s pocketed with lots of small, privately-owned sites. The Conservancy endeavors to purchase these, one by one when they come on the market, and return them to nature.”
But there’s competition. Forested tracts and the sandhills they grow on are also highly attractive to developers, especially as Florida homesteaders look northwest. Longleaf pine trees are not easily replaced. They take 70 to 80 years to mature.
Last but not least, forest integrity has been damaged by the suppression of nature’s historic fire regime. For thousands of years, lightning-strike fires were routine within this spacious and open environment. Without fire, native vegetation and wildlife are crowded out and lost.
Power Through Partnerships
In 1996, the Conservancy and nine major partners joined their considerable forces to create the Gulf Coast Plain Ecosystem Partnership, known as GCPEP. GCPEP partners own and manage more than 1 million acres that include and surround Blackwater River State Forest. Since its inception, the group has collectively saved more than 100,000 acres of longleaf pine forest.
GCPEP partners work to maintain existing longleaf pine habitat that remains in good condition, improve areas in decline and restore forest that has been destroyed. Partners share equipment, staff, ideas and expertise. Together, they:
- aid the recovery of rare species
- propagate native plants
- fix the plumbing of degraded streams and waterways
- return carefully controlled burns to this fire-dependent habitat
- remove invasive, non-native species
Partners have also created significant wildlife corridors for far-ranging critters such as the Florida black bear, including one vital link between Blackwater River State Forest and the environmentally friendly Eglin Air Force Base.
How do you place a value on one of the world’s most critically endangered habitats? The Conservancy considers protection of Blackwater River State Forest among its highest priorities.
Thanks to long-term planning and relationship building – plus the Conservancy’s hallmark focus on science and research – these efforts are making a difference. In Florida’s Blackwater River State Forest, the results are as clear as a freshwater stream. Find out how you can help!