Coastal Headwaters project in Florida is a major step for longleaf pine restoration
Pace, Florida — Rarely has the establishment of a conservation easement generated such fanfare. But dozens of public, private and nonprofit officials on Wednesday extolled the wonders of the permanent setting-aside of 3,719 acres of forested land.
This, though, was no ordinary celebration. It’s likely the first of many such easements intended to restore majestic longleaf pine stands across a large swath of private property. The goal is the transformation of 200,000 acres of Florida and Alabama scrub and loblolly pine into long-living, species-sustaining, revenue-generating longleaf pine forest.
The Coastal Headwaters Forest project is unprecedented and could revolutionize the relationship between Southern timber, wildlife conservation and rural communities. Investors, and at-risk flora and fauna, would all benefit.
“The Coastal Headwaters Forest is the largest single longleaf restoration on private lands to date,” said Mike Leonard, chairman of The Conservation Fund which cobbled the deal together. “The conservation of these (acres) ensures they will remain working lands, supporting local jobs and economies.”
Longleaf pine forests once covered 90 million acres of the Southern coastal plain from Virginia to Texas. The shipbuilding, turpentine and timber industries, though, decimated the pine forests. The forestry industry today prefers quicker-growing loblolly pines. About 4 million acres of longleaf pines remain.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), along with a variety of federal, state and nonprofit agencies, as well as private foresters and investors, set a goal of 8 million longleaf acres by 2025.
For conservationists, longleaf is critical. A well-tended forest is ideal habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, Bachman’s sparrows, eastern indigo snakes and other at-risk species. Biologists will also restore an ephemeral wetland at Coastal Headwaters, prime habitat for the federally endangered reticulated flatwoods salamander. Prescribed fires will regenerate the understory.
“This project underscores, in a big way, how the Service, the Forest Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and other federal and state agencies can work harmoniously with the private sector to protect land, water and animals while helping businesses turn a profit,” said Leo Miranda, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s director for the Southeast.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service acquired the 3,719-acre conservation easement, using Farm Bill funds, last November at a cost of $5 million. Wednesday’s gathering in this suburban community north of Pensacola celebrates the deal. For Resource Management Service (RMS), the timber investment company that owns the 200,000-acre tract, the easement should help bridge the financial gap between investments returning quicker loblolly profits and longer term longleaf profits. RMS manages $4.5 billion of timberland assets in the South, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and China mainly for public pension funds, insurance companies and endowments.
In all, the Coastal Headwaters project could require $200 million in easements. The Conservation Fund says about $50 million has already been committed, mostly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, conservation agencies in Alabama and Florida and a slew of nonprofits.
“Longleaf pine is part of the South’s heritage,” said Jimmy Bullock, a senior RMS vice president. “It was the tree species upon which our forest products industry was built and it has helped anchor our regional identity and outdoor culture for generations.”
The Coastal Headwaters project is timely — but not without risk. Roughly 90 percent of the forestland in the Southeast is privately held, and there are enormous financial pressures to turn the (mostly) environmentally beneficial land into subdivisions or tomato farms. Timber and land prices fluctuate. Investors may get cold feet. And there’s no guarantee the public, private and nonprofit partners will be able to raise all the money to make the deal work.
There was little worry Wednesday, though. Instead, partners lauded the environmental and economic benefits of the nation’s largest, private longleaf project in the country. Creation of a viable, long-term longleaf pine market was nothing to sneeze about.
“Through these partnerships we are able to restore critical habitat for so many at-risk species,” said The Conservation Fund’s Andrew Schock. “We’re showing how the longleaf system can be successful on privately held timber land.”
Dan Chapman, public affairs specialist
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