Three men standing in a pine forest

A harmonious future for profits, pine and at-risk species along the Florida-Alabama line

By Daniel Chapman | February 1, 2018

Pace, Florida

Longleaf pine forests once covered 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas, a bio-diverse swath of timber prized by shipbuilders and gopher tortoises alike.

Sprawling cities, large farms and commercial pine plantations, though, replaced much of the longleaf habitat. Today, less than five million acres remain. Conservationists’ goal of eight million acres by 2025 seemed laughable.

Until Resource Management Service and Jimmy Bullock came along.

A map of protected areas along Florida's panhandle
Map of the Coastal Headwaters Forest by the Conservation Fund and RMS.

Bullock, in charge of forest sustainability for the Alabama-based timber management company, caught longleaf fever about five years ago and approached nonprofit, state and federal agencies with the idea of turning 200,000 acres of mostly loblolly stands straddling the Alabama-Florida line into longleaf forest. The conservation community hustled to find money.

The Coastal Headwaters Forest project is unprecedented and could revolutionize the relationship between Southern timber, conservation and rural communities. It would become the largest, privately owned longleaf timber tract in the nation and provide critical habitat for many threatened and endangered species like the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker and Eastern indigo snake.

A large tortoise navigates a sandy path
Our friend, the gopher tortoise ambling along a sandy road at the Coastal Headwaters Forest. Photo by Dan Chapman/USFWS.
“This is an opportunity to show that landscape-scale restoration work can meet both conservation and economic needs,” said Bullock, a senior RMS vice president. “We think we can produce longleaf at scale to create jobs, bolster rural economies and, hopefully, build new markets.”

Coastal Headwaters would also underscore — in a major way — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s push to conserve Southern lands, create green corridors for protected and at risk wildlife and protect prime hunting and fishing grounds. The so-called Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy, a priority of Cindy Dohner, the Service’s Southeast regional director, and more than two dozen Southern state wildlife agencies, conservation groups and others, seeks to knit together large tracts of public and private land by 2060.

“Ninety percent of Southern lands are privately owned, so collaboration with large-scale landowners is critical,” Dohner said. “Success to us is keeping working lands working. We see public-private ventures like Coastal Headwaters as the wave of the future to ensure the Southeast maintains its wonderfully biodiverse character.”

Setting aside 200,000 acres, via easements, isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s no guarantee public and nonprofit partners will be able to raise all the money needed to make the deal work. Timber and land prices fluctuate. Consumer tastes are notoriously fickle.

“The real issue becomes the cost differential between planting longleaf pine and loblolly pine and the opportunity costs, in particular, during the transition between the two commodities,” said Andrew Schock, who runs the Georgia office of The Conservation Fund, which arranged financing for the deal. “Yet it’s actually a very cost-effective project and it’s important for a suite of at-risk species in the Southeast. And if we can make it happen, other landowners will want to play too.”

Loblolly vs. longleaf

Matt Ezekiel stopped the GMC Sierra at the sandy crossroads to extol upon the past, present and future of silviculture in this corner of the Florida Panhandle. It was a too-warm mid-April day with a slight Gulf breeze keeping the bugs at bay.

On one side of the road stood a stand of loblolly pine. On the other, planted in 2013, was a field of longleaf pines ranging in size from two to 12 feet. A three-legged deer feeder announced the tract’s recreational bounty. Yaupon holly, titi and sedge competed with the longleaf. Gopher tortoise burrows abounded.

A man standing in front of a pine forest stand
Matt Ezekiel, region manager for Resource Management Service. Photo by Dan Chapman/USFWS.

“Historically speaking, longleaf is a stronger, straighter, better tree,” explained Ezekiel, a land manager with Resource Management. “It just feels like the right thing to do to plant longleaf. But there’s a lot of pressure on the land: development; hunting; row crops. Our clients might one day say, ‘Heck, I wish we didn’t do longleaf.’”

But, if all goes well, 150,000 acres will be swathed in longleaf, burned every four years to produce ideal wildlife habitat, and returned to its prehistoric splendor forever. (Protected streams and wetlands would comprise the remaining 50,000 acres.) The project’s longleaf will typically be grown for 45 years; loblolly, the commercial favorite, can be harvested in about half that time.

Ezekiel toured the first 4,500-acre parcel all but ready for its longleaf makeover. His company is negotiating the details with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and The Conservation Fund. An easement is anticipated by year’s end.

The public-private deal must make financial sense for RMS’ investors. Timber Investment Management Organizations, or TIMOs, have recently returned about six percent a year.

“Certainly, the returns are front and center,” said Bullock, whose company manages $4.5 billion worth of timber and land in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and China. “But being able to do it in a pretty cool, environmentally sustainable manner like Coastal Headwaters is of prime importance too.”

The Conservation Fund’s Schock says $42 million is already committed, mostly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, conservation agencies in Alabama and Florida and a slew of non-profits, which should translate into 42,000 protected acres of ready-to-plant longleaf.

The first conservation easement should be in place by mid-2018. He doesn’t think the project is too costly.

“When we first started talking about this four years ago – 200,000 acres and $200 million – everybody’s eyes got really big and they got nervous,” Shock said. “But NRCS pays upwards of $850 an acre in its Conservation Reserve and cost-share programs and, after 16 years, the landowner can cut the trees down. These longleaf pine forests will be there forever.”

While the federal government, including the Defense Department, has made substantial investments in longleaf, large private landowners typically shy away from the long-term investment.

M.C. Davis is an exception. Davis bought up 54,000 acres of timber and farmland near Bruce, Fla., about 100 miles east of here, and planted eight million longleaf pine seedlings. Since 2006, his Nokuse Plantation has imported and protected 4,500 gopher tortoises. Davis, now deceased, promised to maintain Nokuse as a biodiverse “hotspot” in perpetuity.

It could one day link with Eglin Air Force Base, the Blackwater River State Forest and Coastal Headwaters to form the western reach of a conservation corridor stretching across the Panhandle and up into Georgia.

“We envision this as a private working forest with conservation easements in perpetuity,” Bullock said. “And it’s also changed the dynamic for other large landowners who see us willing to think long term and on a regional level. They’re thinking, ‘Maybe we should plug into that conservation vision too.’”

Turtles, landowners benefit

En route to a nearby ephemeral pond, home to endangered reticulated flatwoods salamanders, Ezekiel suddenly stopped the pickup. A gopher tortoise ambled along the side of the sandy road. He halted, waited, looked peeved – as much as a tortoise can look peeved – at all the attention and then waddled toward his burrow 20 feet away.

A woman standing in front of a pine forest stand
Catherine Phillips, project leader of the USFWS Panama City Field Office. Photo by Dan Chapman/USFWS.

Ezekiel said the population of at-risk gopher tortoises had “exploded” in the tracts already given over to longleaf once the understory had been burned off and the natural grasses returned. Robust longleaf forests support 29 threatened or endangered species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and Eastern indigo snakes.

Roughly 500 miles of streams and the watersheds of five rivers – the Escambia, Perdido, Blackwater, Lower Alabama, and Lower Conecuh – will also be protected. Turkey and deer hunts will continue. Jobs in a new longleaf timber industry might abound.

“My ultimate goal is to see this become successful for the landowners so other owners will take a risk for this type of conservation,” said Catherine Phillips, a Service biologist who runs the nearby Panama City office. “It’s species recovery, but it also has to be a profitable venture. That’s the only way it’s going work.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Dan Chapman is a public affairs specialist for the Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, GA.