Tall Timbers Enrolls 34 Landowners in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program During its First Year of Conservation Work Funded by NRCS
Flowing from Thomasville, Georgia south into Florida through the Red Hills, carving swaths through the Cody Scarp before falling into the Coastal Plain and eventually reaching Apalachee Bay, the St. Marks/Wakulla and Aucilla River watersheds contain some of the most unique water features on the planet. At points along their paths, these rivers and their tributaries drop underground into “swallet” holes joining with groundwater in the massive Floridan Aquifer, and re-emerge downgradient as springs that flow to tidewater, where an incredibly diverse coastal ecosystem has evolved in this mixture of fresh and salt water.
Tall Timbers has long had an interest in the northern reaches of these river basins and in the past few years has expanded its conservation efforts toward a more holistic watershed approach. Toward that end, funding opportunities were explored and, in 2020, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded $7,066,083 to Tall Timbers to implement conservation work in the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds in Georgia and Florida. The work is funded through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a five-year, partner-driven program that leverages funds to solve natural resource challenges on both natural and agricultural lands through the 2018 Farm Bill. This award was an outgrowth of Tall Timbers’ Strategic Plan priorities to pursue funding resources for strategic conservation transactions, conservation management, and land stewardship; emphasize prescribed fire as an essential land management tool; and increase community awareness about exemplary land stewardship.
The RCPP project seeks to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and economic opportunities in the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds. The project will accomplish these goals by funding the purchase of conservation easements, cost-share for habitat management on private forest and agricultural lands, community events to raise awareness about the watershed, and even an experimental program in the Gulf of Mexico to benefit the oyster industry through improved water quality and new oyster reefs.
Tall Timbers is working with a wide range of partners to implement the project. These partners include the Suwannee River Water Management District, Aucilla Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Apalachee Audubon Society, the Tallahassee Community College Wakulla Environmental Institute, and numerous private landowners.
After working through the contracting process, the program kicked off in 2021 with Tall Timbers hiring two full-time program staff: Conservation Program Liaison, Tyler Macmillan, and RCPP Field Biologist, Rebecca Armstrong. The RCPP team immediately started working to enroll landowners in Florida and Georgia in the cost share programs for habitat management, while also identifying properties for the potential purchase of conservation easements. Coordination with various partners occurred as well as outreach efforts to explain the program and the benefits of exemplary land stewardship within these watersheds.
The initial sign-up for land management cost-share assistance resulted in the enrollment of 21 Florida properties in Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson and Madison Counties, and 13 Georgia properties in Grady, Thomas and Brooks Counties. These stewardship projects include:
- 3,252 acres of prescribed burning, including fireline installation;
- 156,122 longleaf pine trees being planted on 235 acres, including site preparation;
- 1,083 acres of forest stand improvement practices; and
- 152 acres of invasive exotic plant treatment.
In keeping with the objectives of the program, a number of the properties will implement practices that allow prescribed burning to be initially introduced or reintroduced in fire-dependent habitats. Many private landowners in the region are interested in prescribed burning, but their properties cannot be burned in their current condition due to fuels build-up, excessive hardwood intrusion, and other factors. The RCPP program provides cost-share and technical assistance opportunities to implement projects like brush control, firebreak installation, and various timber stand improvement practices that facilitate future prescribed burning.
The RCPP program has an emphasis on working with “historically underserved” landowners, which include any of the following categories of farmers or ranchers:
- veteran farmers or ranchers,
- socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers,
- limited resource farmers or ranchers,
- beginning farmers or ranchers.
Ten of the 34 landowners enrolled in the RCPP land management program fall within one or more of the historically underserved categories.
An important component of RCPP programs nationwide is to measure environmental, social, and economic “outcomes” associated with the projects that are implemented. Environmental outcomes are monitored through pre and post-project biological assessments that are developed to measure the specific activity being implemented. Social and economic outcomes will be measured through pre- and post-project surveys that will be used to assess attitudes towards conservation, land management practices, and the relevant entities that landowners will be working with. Plans and protocols were developed for the biological monitoring, and pre-activity surveys were completed on a number of properties.
RCPP staff have interacted with a variety of groups that are doing similar work with landowners in the area including the Suwannee River Partnership, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Landowner Assistance Program, Golden Triangle Resource Conservation and Development Council, Florida Forest Service County Foresters, Northwest Florida Sentinel Landscape, Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance, and a number of private contractors who provide forest management and prescribed burning services.
A group of landowners interested in the purchased conservation easement component of RCPP have been identified, with lands that run the spectrum of ecological offerings. A mature longleaf pine forest with intact groundcover in Wakulla County, portions of land along the Aucilla River, and sections of historic hunting plantations right on the outskirts of Tallahassee are just some of the exciting projects in the queue. RCPP funds have enabled Tall Timbers to reach new landowners interested in conserving their land in corners of these watersheds that the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy has rarely worked within prior to this project. These areas harbor incredible natural resources, but also face rapid development, so staff looks forward to achieving their goal of conserving at least 5,000 new acres through the lifespan of this project.
Outreach and educational activities include sponsorship and participation with the Aucilla Research Institute’s conference in March of this year; an agricultural/private landowner-focused event at the Florida Capitol; Tall Timbers feral hog program meetings; a Tall Timbers prescribed burn planning workshop; a prescribed fire workshop near Albany, Georgia; and field trips for Leadership Tallahassee, Leadership Thomasville, and Leadership Florida.
Applications to participate in the land management cost share program are accepted year-round, with cutoff dates usually in the late summer/fall timeframe. Landowners in the Aucilla and St. Marks River watersheds in Georgia and Florida can contact Tyler Macmillan for application information. Landowners interested in the purchased conservation easement component of the program should contact Peter Kleinhenz.
Originally published in the 2022 Tall Timbers eJournal.