Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Florida Panhandle Lands

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Florida Panhandle Lands focal area.

Map of Florida Panhandle Lands focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

Generally situated inland from the Florida portion of the Alabama and Florida Coastal Beaches and Dunes focal area, this focal area’s geography spans roughly across 200 miles of the five most western counties of Florida, from the mainland coast to north of Interstate 10. The Panhandle Lands focal area is known for having exceptionally high biodiversity within its longleaf pine and riparian hardwood forests, floodplains and abundance of springs, subterranean streams and rivers. This once sparsely populated agricultural area is now experiencing accelerated population growth as it serves as a major tourist destination and is home to several large military installations. The interconnection of these habitats and human use plays a significant role in both the quality and quantity of water that enters the nearshore Gulf waters, which also contains one of the largest and most pristine seagrass beds in North America.

A blue hued photo with thick underwater vegetation.

Seagrass meadow. Photo by Heather Dine, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The six major watersheds throughout this landscape are being impacted by a variety of threats associated with increased development pressure and habitat alterations, including habitat fragmentation; nonpoint source pollution; sedimentation resulting from issues such as stream bank instability and unpaved road crossings; and drainage from domestic and industrial wastewater reuse facilities. The greatest conservation needs within the Panhandle Lands Focal Area are concentrated on improving water quality, restoring watersheds by improving hydrologic processes, and implementing additional land conservation that not only improves water quality and quantity but also creates ecological corridors and improves habitat connectivity. The Service is keen to work with partners to advance present and potential future efforts to achieve these goals.

Target Species

Despite the relatively high biodiversity of this focal area, there are relatively few target species that have established biological objectives. This lack of objectives has hampered the Service’s ability to specifically tie conservation actions to resulting species benefits in this area. To move from an opportunistic to a coordinated, efficient approach to restoration and conservation here, we need scientifically solid biological objectives for more target species. Implementing actions to restore or maintain sufficient water quantity and quality levels, however, will assist in reaching the recovery goals for fish like the Okaloosa darter (one of the few species with established objectives, i.e., populations in all six stream systems remain stable or increasing for a 20-year hydrologic cycle) and the Gulf sturgeon (which has the general objective of long-term self-sustaining populations). These efforts will also benefit numerous federally listed freshwater mussels without approved recovery plans (e.g., the round ebonyshell, the southern kidneyshell, the Choctaw bean and the fuzzy pigtoe). The upland habitats of this focal area are also home to pine-dependent species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker (with recovery plan goals recognizing Eglin Air Force Base as a primary core population potentially supporting 350 breeding groups, and Blackwater River State Forest/Conecuh National Forest identified as a secondary core potentially supporting 250 breeding groups). Work in pine forests would also benefit other federally listed species for which no quantitative recovery objectives exist, including both the frosted and reticulated flatwoods salamander and the eastern indigo snake.

A small, lobster shaped animal in a biologists hand.

Panama City crayfish. Photo by USFWS.

We propose restoration actions that will reduce instream sedimentation and chemical pollution to improve water quality and spawning habitat for our trust resource species, but many other recreationally and ecologically important species like shoal bass, largemouth bass, Gulf Coast striped bass, catfish and invertebrate prey species will experience the same improvements. At-risk species like the coastal flatwoods crayfish and the Panama City crayfish would also benefit. Removing impediments to access like dams and culverts will expand the resource base and increase abundance for those species that depend on large areas of river like the Gulf sturgeon, but also shad and other migratory aquatic species. Coastal species like oysters, shrimp, blue crabs, red drum and reef fish will benefit from better water quality and suitable flow of freshwater into estuaries. Similar to the benefits accrued in the Central Gulf Lands Focal Area, improving the quality of the upland habitats of this region will not only benefit our trust resource species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and flatwoods salamanders, but also Species of Greatest Conservation Need like the eastern coachwhip and both the slender and the mimic glass lizards. Terrestrial mammals like white-tailed deer, turkeys and squirrels, as well as at-risk plants — particularly the sweet pitcher plant and Boykin’s lobelia — would also benefit from management of the longleaf flatwoods in this region.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Improve water quality and quantity for the Gulf sturgeon, shellfish (including freshwater mussels and oysters), seagrass beds, fisheries, and migratory birds.

Next Steps

A farmer points towards a ramp partially submerged by a stream.

Watering ramp installed to keep cattle from disturbing riparian area. Photo by Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture.

  • Support and encourage the development of formal partnerships focused on estuary ecosystem restoration that can use the information in updated Surface Water Improvement and Management plans (as well as outputs from other efforts described below) to prioritize restoration needs and seek funding for project implementation.
  • Provide support for voluntary water quality monitoring programs to assess numeric nutrient criteria affecting listed freshwater mussels and additional at-risk aquatic species.
  • Identify nutrient pollution impacts to fish and wildlife within six major watersheds (Escambia, Yellow, Choctawhatchee, Chipola, Ochlocknee and Perdido).
  • In areas in which it would provide the most significant water quality benefits for fish and wildlife, retrofit current wastewater treatment technology and convert septic systems to sewer systems in targeted sub-watersheds to reduce nutrient pollution impacts.
  • Use the completed Sediment Threat Assessments for Chipola, Yellow, and Choctawhatchee watersheds to create a prioritized list of unpaved road crossings and fisheries impediments to be included for improvement in the State Water Management District Basin Restoration Plans.
  • Complete Sediment Threat Assessments for the remaining major watersheds within the focal area (i.e., those of the Escambia, Ochlockonee and Perdido Rivers).
  • Work with federal, state and local partners (including counties) to complete, as appropriate, the remaining full Watershed Threats Assessments (including factors such as pollutant loading and fish passage barriers) to identify and quantify habitat degradation for these six watersheds and their associated major tributaries and develop restoration recommendations for each watershed.
  • Implement activities such as the paving of roads, restoration of active “borrow pits” (areas where material has been dug for use at another location), and removing other barriers to fish passage within priority areas identified in the above planning efforts to improve the quality of and access to freshwater habitats.
  • Implement best management practices such as livestock exclusion devices and solar-powered wells to reduce damage incurred by livestock including bankside erosion, sedimentation and nonpoint source pollution to improve water quality and habitat affecting listed freshwater mussels and fish.

Target voluntary land conservation that buffer military lands and provide improved water quality in places such as Tyndall and Eglin Air Force Bases.

Next Steps

  • Apply the “Green Links” Landscape Conservation Model to identify and prioritize Panhandle Lands that provide habitat connectivity and have the highest ecological value for restoration and conservation of 79 state-listed species known to occur within this focal area.
  • Work with landowners (through voluntary fee acquisition and/or conservation easements) to connect existing conservation lands, decrease the potential for further habitat fragmentation and protect groundwater recharge areas within these high priority habitats, all of which will benefit the dozens of listed and at-risk species that occur in this area.
  • Capitalize on partnerships such as the U.S. Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability, USDA’s NRCS’ Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and others to identify opportunities to protect military buffer lands from development and protect water resources, habitat quality and listed species.

Work with existing partnerships to restore priority habitats such as longleaf pine in order to enhance and maintain floodplain functions, thereby increasing water quality and quantity.

Next Steps

  • Work within the Eglin Air Force Base/Blackwater State Park/Conecuh National Forest Significant Geographic Area identified by the Longleaf Partnership Council to restore and maintain open multi-aged, historic pine communities.
  • Support partnerships such as the Gulf Coast Plains Ecosystems Partnership to advance adaptive management through the exchange of forest management information and aquatic restoration techniques and technology.
  • Coordinate and conduct prescribed fires to enhance and restore natural communities and reduce hazardous fuels.
  • Increase public awareness through the development of education and outreach programs about the importance of long-term water protection investments to both humans and the environment.
  • Promote partnerships and on-the-ground management/control actions that reduce the threat of terrestrial and aquatic invasive species and their impact on native habitats.
  • Implement the Coastal Headwaters project, a joint effort by The Conservation Fund and Resource Management Service LLC, to restore more than 200,000 acres in Florida and Alabama to longleaf pine, thus preserving ecological functions and maintaining these acres as working forests.