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Two finely manicured hands reach for a tiny gopher tortoise hiding in its shell on sandy soil.
Information icon A gopher tortoise hiding in its shell. Photo by Ben Williams.

Florida couple dedicates property to conservation

Ben and LouAnn Williams own approximately 3,400 acres of pinelands interspersed with bottomland hardwoods in Putnam County, Florida, between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Their property contributes to conservation on a regional scale because it is adjacent to publicly owned conservation areas, creating an important link in a chain of conservation lands from central Florida to the Georgia state line.

Young pine trees emerge from black scorched earth.
Sandhill after prescribed burn. Photo by Ben Williams.

In 2012, the Williams’ began establishing longleaf pine on their property and reintroduced prescribed burning. While most of the property is considered mesic flatwoods, there are several hundred acres of deeper sandy soils. Prior to being harvested in 2008, the 162-acre sandhill project area consisted of a dense and unmanaged mixture of mature slash pine and a variety of oaks and other mid-story species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW) helped the Williams’ to expand and enhance their restoration efforts and improve habitat conditions for gopher tortoises and eastern indigo snakes, as well as the state-listed Sherman’s fox squirrel. The cooperative agreement through PFW provided funding for hardwood removal and herbicide treatments that opened up the canopy and allowed native ground cover to be established.

Pine trees growing taller than the underbrush.
Sandhill after restoration efforts. Photo by Ben Williams.

Some of the larger diameter oaks were spared from timber harvesting and chipping to provide a source of mast for wildlife and to enhance vegetation structure. Where oaks were removed, herbicide treatment of re-sprouting hardwoods and some mechanical manipulation has established a native grassland, forb-friendly environment. They decided to manage existing slash pines planted by the previous landowner until they reach marketable age prior to thinning. Already, however, the more open canopy and greater light levels are benefitting the many herbaceous species. Re-establishment of a fire regime is now further enhancing the ground cover diversity.

The Williams’ have been active partners not just with the Service, but state agencies and the water management district as well. In addition, they have been actively working with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Forest Service, and local landowners to establish a Prescribed Burn Association to facilitate prescribed burning on private lands. Their property has recently been permanently protected under a conservation easement purchased through the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and they have provided access to FWC biologists to survey for spotted turtle, black creek crayfish, and other at-risk species.

Ben and LouAnn Williams are great advocates for conservation and reintroduction of prescribed fire. You can learn more about their efforts and advocacy at:

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