Tall Timbers highlights from 2023

Dec 13, 2023

The following highlights were collected from the updates we provide the Tall Timbers Board of Trustees throughout the year. We hope you enjoy this look back at a few of our successes and challenges in 2023. 

Tall Timbers’ fire researchers effect changes in federal funding policy

In November, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife program announced that prescribed fire had been added to the USDA Climate-Smart practice list for Fiscal Year 2024. Designation as a Climate-Smart practice makes prescribed fire eligible for additional Inflation Reduction Act funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

This new designation recognizes prescribed fire as having climate change mitigation benefits by helping protect and increase carbon in the soil. The change is attributed in part to the recent Fact Sheet on Opportunities for Research on Carbon Sequestration in Longleaf Pine Ecosystems by Kevin Robertson, Tall Timbers’ Director of Fire Ecology. Kevin developed a prospectus on carbon sequestration research at the request of agency staff to help shape policy within a program. It turned out to be bigger than that, as the prospectus was turned into a fact sheet and ultimately used in the designation of burning as a Climate-Smart practice for the Inflation Reduction Act.

The backstory of this new designation and funding for prescribed fire is a testament to the high regard provided to Tall Timbers research and researchers. By hiring dedicated scientists and continuously evaluating and aligning our lines of research for applied uses on the ground and in policy, we help ensure the relevance of our research investments.

Air quality regulations rise as a long-term priority in Albany and beyond

All indications point toward a US Environmental Protection Agency rule change in late 2023 or early 2024 that will tighten federal clean air standards for fine particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size (PM 2.5).

With Albany, Georgia, currently exceeding the existing annual average standard of 12 micrograms, the tighter standard (between 9 and 10 micrograms) represents increased restrictions on burning there and new restrictions in areas that exceed the tighter standard. Analysis by the US Chamber of Commerce indicates that a large portion of Georgia, including as far south as Brooks County, will be subject to new regulations if the standard is set on the low side of the range being considered.

Tall Timbers has been heavily engaged on this issue since the EPA rule change was proposed in early 2023, and it is now clear that addressing this complex public health topic will be a long-term process. Our approach includes direct engagement on federal policy, increased research to provide needed data for problem-solving and decision-making, and land manager outreach regarding practices to help manage burning for improved air quality.

It is important to recognize this will not be a quick fix, and growing our research and advocacy capacity regarding air quality is an important step in positioning Tall Timbers as a continued strong and relevant voice for policies, practices, programs and funding that continue to protect and expand the use of prescribed fire.

Wild quail interest is growing in the Carolinas

Since its inception in 2018, the Carolina Regional Quail Program, with Paul Grimes’ oversight, has worked closely with a handful of property owners totaling more than 20,000 acres that have put their trust in Tall Timbers guidance.

Habitat management has been the focus and the result has been up to one bird per acre. This success is contagious and now nearly two dozen property owners, covering another 70,000 acres, are working with CRQP to improve their habitat for wild quail. This community of landowners managing their property for quail participated in a successful Fall Field Day in November at Heatherstone Farms, which produces three coveys per hour on foot.

The field day attracted 120 people, including nearly a dozen South Carolina Department of Natural Resources personnel demonstrating that the state wildlife agency is also noticing the success.

That peer-to-peer contact, where people were able to see the success first-hand, recently prompted seven additional landowners in the Camden, South Carolina area to step forward and express interest in working with Tall Timbers. “They’ve been on the fence,” Grimes said. “Seeing the success at Heatherstone, meeting the landowners from around the state and hearing that it works and we’re seeing results. Now they want it.”

There are a number of existing large landowners and interest in buying land to shift out of commercial pine production toward increased land value by managing for quail and other natural resources is growing.

As Tall Timbers President and CEO Bill Palmer put it: “It has the makings of a little Thomasville.”

Utility scale solar and conservation conflicts elevated among national partners

In September, the Tall Timbers Board of Trustees adopted the “Tall Timbers position on Utility Scale Solar projects,” outlining our stance on siting facilities to minimize impacts on conservation interests.

A month later, the “Solar Uncommon Dialogue” agreement among major solar developers, conservation groups, and other community interests was announced to establish solar development strategies prioritizing climate, conservation, and community.

Large scale solar farm, mega photovoltaic power plant in green grass field.

This agreement among over 20 groups, including Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Land Trust Alliance, is a testament to the national scale of the issue, as solar output in our country is projected to grow by 500 percent over the next 10 years.

Tall Timbers Planning and Advocacy Coordinator Neil Fleckenstein has fielded questions from numerous partners in the land trust community and is actively sharing the Tall Timbers position statement to help others. Neil will sit on a working group for the Solar Uncommon Dialogue process, providing an important perspective from the land trust community. Getting ahead of future utility scale solar projects through coordination with the energy industry is currently a large portion of Neil’s time, and it is an example of the balanced approach Tall Timbers uses to conserve and steward the land strategically.

Quail Country CCAA Signed

Eleven years in the making, the Quail Country Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) was signed at a ceremony in September at Tall Timbers.
This agreement with US Fish & Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Tall Timbers is the first ever multi-state CCAA—it covers twelve key species for the Red Hills and surrounding counties.

Landowners can now sign up for the agreement to enhance habitat for the covered species and, in return, avoid further regulatory oversight. Congratulations to Tall Timbers Biological Monitoring Coordinator Kim Sash for her perseverance!

Tall Timbers’ Research Director Morgan Varner continues national prescribed fire policy work  

In September, Dr. Morgan Varner presented and served on a panel in Washington, D.C. for a National Academy of Sciences workshop on greenhouse gas emissions from wildland fires.

He was part of a panel from around the world working on understanding how wildland fires interact with the atmosphere. The National Academy of Sciences is a very prestigious non-profit society of scholars established by an Act of Congress in 1863, to provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science.

In March, Varner testified as an expert witness before the United States Senate, Committee on the Budget. The opportunity to testify at the Senate hearing results from a determined effort by Tall Timbers to reassert leadership in national fire policy through panels, task forces, and Congress.

How Western States Can Encourage Prescribed Fire on Private Lands

Released in January, the Burn Back Better report is the most comprehensive analysis of prescribed fire policy in the 11 western states, focusing on state-level policies affecting the use of prescribed fire on private lands. The report is a collaboration between the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) and Tall Timbers.

It is being used to support State policymakers and private land managers in ramping up the use of prescribed fire to complement efforts on federal lands.

Conservation easements continue as a vital strategy for protecting habitat

The Tall Timbers Land Conservancy continued its decades long legacy of helping landowners preserve habitat in the Red Hills and Albany through conservation easements. This year, the Land Conservancy increased its pace by exploring both donated and purchased easements.

This year, the Land Conservancy has celebrated a first few successes in attracting public funding to purchase conservation easements and helping landowners navigate that process. In September, 4,800 acres of the Cherokee property in northern Leon County was permanently protected through Florida Forever, the state’s voter-approved land conservation program. In May, more than 3,000 acres of Avalon Plantation in Jefferson County was also permanently protected through a Florida Forever easement. Tall Timbers worked with both landowners to navigate the process.

In June, Birdsong Nature Center in Grady County, Georgia, became permanently protected through a Tall Timbers Conservation Easement. This long-term vision was accomplished with a mix of private dollars and public funding approved by Georgia voters through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act.

Private land conservation is a cost-effective public investment for protecting large-scale ecosystem services.

Donated and purchased conservation easements will continue to be important tools in our land conservation toolbox, as landowners receive compensation for extinguished development rights through tax benefits, direct payments, or a combination of both.

About the Author
Karl Etters
A Tallahassee native, Karl has a background in journalism and an even deeper background in exploring North Florida's wild spaces. Merge the two, and he's Tall Timbers' communication coordinator. When he's not spending time with family and friends, he can be found fly fishing, hunting, biking or walking the woods looking for turkeys.
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