Opportunity from disaster
Hurricane Michael allows Service, Air Force to increase longleaf pine restoration
Panama City, Florida — Hurricane Michael savaged Tyndall Air Force Base with 160 mph winds that nearly destroyed the base and everything, including the trees, within its deadly path across the Panhandle. Damage to Tyndall alone topped $3 billion. Three-fourths of the pines on the 29,000-acre base between the Gulf of Mexico and East Bay were sheared in half. Tyndall lost $14 million in harvestable timber.
The Air Force vows to rebuild. Conservationists with the military and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) vow to replant.
Armed with an Air Force grant, the disheartening and laborious process of clearing 12,000 acres of pine trees is underway. From tragedy, though, sometimes comes opportunity. The Service and the Air Force, for example, had long planned to replace much of Tyndall’s pine forests with longleaf pine, the preferred habitat for a slew of at-risk species.
The original timeline: 35 years.
Now, post-Michael: 5 years.
“We’re hoping the hurricane might accelerate the restoration work,” said Melanie Kaeser, the Service’s liaison with Tyndall. “But it really is going to be a monumental job.”
And, if successful, a critically important job. Only a handful of locations in the South tally longleaf stands larger than 12,000 acres. Most survived Hurricane Michael. The recently reclassified Category 5 monster slammed into Tyndall, Panama City and Mexico Beach before arching inland over the Panhandle and southwest Georgia. In all, 45 people died. Roughly 1.4 million acres of Florida pine suffered severe or catastrophic tree loss, according to the Florida Forest Service.
Tyndall was ripped apart. A third of the base’s facilities were destroyed. Most of the F-22 fighter jets and other aircraft flew off before the hurricane, though some undergoing maintenance suffered damage. Eleven thousand airmen, family members and civilians were evacuated. Bears broke into homes attracted by rotting food left behind in refrigerators.
“We were fine until my house started to shake,” said Dann Childs, the base’s forester, who lives across East Bay from Tyndall. “And then it got scary. I looked over to my wife and she was praying. The storm got louder. We didn’t say a word.”
Kaeser, whose Panama City neighborhood suffered heavy losses, returned to Tyndall three weeks after the storm only to witness more of the same — downed trees in every direction.
“You put so much work into it and you see this…“ she said, her words tailing off. “It brought tears to my eyes. The scale of the destruction is unreal and the recovery daunting. How do you deal with it?”
Kaeser and Childs, on a warm spring afternoon, were giving a tour of Tyndall’s once-forested eastern sector to natural resource managers from state, federal and nonprofit agencies across the Panhandle. The caravan pulled off U.S. 98 — the coastal trail of destruction — onto Camp Eagle Road where a 25-foot tall pile of chipped wood awaited transportation to a mill.
Contractors had salvaged 2,200 acres of Tyndall timber between December and April until the market bottomed out due to a not-surprising abundance of product. The tract alongside Camp Eagle looked eerily empty with a few spindly and stooped slash pines standing forlorn amid saw palmettos and gallberry bushes.
In their place, one day, hopefully, will stand tall, thick longleaf pines with an understory of nutritious wiregrass. Gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, reticulated flatwood salamanders and other threatened and endangered species will thrive in the oft-burned longleaf forest. And a habitat that all but disappeared under the woodmen’s ax will, once again, thrive.
Longleaf pine forests once covered 90 million acres of coastal plain stretching from Virginia to Texas. Today, only about 3.5 million acres of mostly contiguous longleaf stands remain. There’s also 1.1 million acres of mixed longleaf and hardwoods forests, according to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. The Service and a slew of partners are shooting for 8 million acres by 2025.
Most longleaf rises in Florida on public and private lands. Apalachicola, Ocala and Osceola national forests tally tens of thousands of acres of longleaf. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is home to 7,000 largely aggregated acres. Nokuse Plantation, in nearby Bruce, Fla., has planted 24,000 acres of longleaf and will add another 10,000 acres over the next decade, according to the private nature preserve’s Matthew Aresco. Coastal Headwaters, a commercial forest near Pensacola, plans tens of thousands of longleaf acres on its 200,000-acre spread in Florida and Alabama.
“There are big tracts of longleaf left, but those tracts are rare and special,” said Kevin McIntyre, education coordinator for the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in southwest Georgia. The center manages 21,000 acres of the iconic pine. “To create another one is huge. Tyndall will be in a fairly unique league.”
The Department of Defense, at first blush, seems an odd conservation partner. By law, though, the armed forces must protect natural resources, including threatened and endangered species. And their large military installations, with millions of acres of woods and wetlands, provide some excellent habitat for at-risk species.
The Air Force in Florida sets the bar. Nearly two dozen Service employees — ecologists, biologists, prescribed fire specialists, heavy equipment operators — work on all but one of the Sunshine State’s eight USAF bases. They help the Air Force reach specific conservation goals — habitat restoration for at-risk beach mice and shorebirds, for example — and, in return, the military trains with fewer regulatory obstacles.
The longleaf tour continued eastward along U.S. 98, pulling alongside an 18-wheeler filled with wood chips headed to a Panama City mill. In the distance, against a backdrop of white sand beach and blue-green gulf, a “feller buncher” tree cutter made short work of lone pines. A skidder dragged the pines to the loader which fed the trees into the chipper. Fifty-foot tall trees were reduced to wood chips in 20 seconds.
At first, the mills paid $4 per ton of salvaged pine pole. The price quickly dropped, though, with millions of tons of downed trees across the Panhandle saturating the market. Childs and Kaeser decided wholesale clearing of the remaining pines was the best, quickest and most effective way to ready Tyndall for longleaf restoration on 12,000 acres. In early May, Tyndall paid the salvage company $5 a ton to haul away the chips. The cost will only rise, Childs said.
It will be years, decades perhaps, before Tyndall’s forests are replenished. In the meantime, barren fields, stubbly trees and low-slung vegetation will rule the landscape.
“The sausage-making is awful,” said David Printiss, program manager for The Nature Conservancy in north Florida who toured Tyndall. “But this project is an excellent use of money for longleaf restoration. You’re putting the right tree back in. You can monetize it in the future. It’s got all the wildlife benefits. It can be maintained in the future with fire. And it’s the most hurricane-tolerant tree.”
Eglin Air Force Base, outside of Pensacola, Florida, will likely provide the longleaf seedlings. Gopher tortoises, bald eagles and black bears haven’t been scared off by the hurricane. Kaeser happily noted that Godfrey’s butterwort and Telephus spurge, federally threatened flowers, have returned to Tyndall’s pine barrens.
“We’ll do what it takes to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem,” she said.
Dan Chapman, public affairs specialist
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