GAINESVILLE, Fla., Sept. 27, 2016 — When Cindi and David Stewart first saw the mosaic of sandhills, swamps, flatwoods and loblolly pine forest making up the 222 acres 13 miles south of Marianna, Fla., they knew they would buy it. Avid hikers from the south-central Florida suburbs, they loved being in the forest. “We were the poster children for yuppies moving to the country from the city,” Cindi said. That was 14 years ago, and they have come a long way towards their goal of managing their property for wildlife habitat.
Cindi has a degree in environmental studies and had been a Master Gardener for 10 years when they moved. “We found fabulous resources to help us improve our property,” she said. They signed up for the University of Florida Extension Master Tree Farmer class, then took the Master Wildlife Class. Florida Forest Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave them advice.
The first thing David and Cindi did was take out the woody, bushy undergrowth from the forest. They applied herbicide, bushhogged, thinned and watched the understory transform into wiregrass and wildflowers. They planted 50 acres of longleaf pine because it encompasses the benchmarks of good habitat that the Stewarts were looking for. They burn every two years. “It is amazing to see new wildflowers you haven’t seen before you clear and burn,” Cindi said. In 2006, Jackson County awarded the Stewarts the Tree Farmer of the Year.
This year they got financial and technical assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help them manage their longleaf pine and enhance their wildlife habitat through the Working Lands for Wildlife program. They went to the local USDA Service Center in Marianna where the NRCS district conservationist, Mary Jane Nelson, walked them through the process of creating a conservation plan and applying for assistance. “It is satisfying to see the change. Wildlife likes the open. It’s now green and beautiful with luscious wiregrass. I am thrilled every time I hear a quail,” Cindi said. They see brown-headed nuthatches, fox squirrels and pine snakes. Bluebird houses and corn feeders dot the landscape. Cindi starts native flowers in greenhouses and plants pollinator habitat around her house and in the fields between hammocks and stands of trees. She keeps a plant list for enjoyment and so far has recorded 390 tree and plant species with seven of them designated as rare.
For new landowners, the Stewarts recommend asking lots of questions, using the tools and time available to complete specific tasks and keep steadily chipping away. “Don’t get overwhelmed, it’s amazing what can be accomplished in small increments – even if your wife won’t let you buy that 60-hp 4-wheel drive tractor,” David said.
To learn how you can restore longleaf pine or develop wildlife or pollinator habitat on your land contact your local NRCS office.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Several programs give financial and technical assistance to plant longleaf pine and develop wildlife and pollinator habitat in Florida. The Longleaf Pine Initiative is available to forest owners in select counties and the Working Lands for Wildlife program is for enhancing habitat for the gopher tortoise in Florida. The Pollinator Initiative helps develop pollinator habitat. Landowners apply through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program. A district conservationist at your local USDA service center will help guide you to the program best suited for you.
Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program
This Department of Defense program provides incentives to landowners within a military installation priority buffer area. Contact Stephanie Hertz.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Landowner Assistance Program biologists provide technical assistance to manage and restore longleaf pine and manage wildlife habitat. They can also provide information about cost share opportunities.
Florida Forest Service
County foresters give technical assistance for managing your stands.
Florida state agency natural resource professionals help non-industrial landowners develop a customized management plan based on the landowners’ objectives.
The Longleaf Alliance website
A comprehensive source of information, history, education, workshops and management information for restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem.
America’s Longleaf website
Also a comprehensive resource, including workshops and reports.