Tall Timbers Helping Landowners Manage Land in Florida

When you work in watershed conservation, there are few things that get you down like seeing major, negative impacts to waterways right before your eyes. This was the case last week when Tall Timbers Field Biologist, Becc Armstrong, and I were out on a property visit in Jefferson County, Florida. We were looking down at a stream coursing through mature forest at the edge of a cattle pasture. Dozens of cows were standing in the creek, defecating in the scum-encrusted water and sloshing about on the muddy bank. The creek, as it flowed through this particular property, was trashed.

Cows rest and wade in a stream, creating significant water quality issues for both this stream and for the Aucilla River, which it ultimately flows into. Photo by Peter Kleinhenz.

Sad as this sight was, we were there to help. Becc and I are both part of a team at Tall Timbers that, along with Conservation Program Liaison, Tyler Macmillan, are working to help landowners improve their properties for wildlife and water quality. The three of us are funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (NRCS-RCPP). The pot of money that provides our salaries also reimburses select landowners for 75% of their land management costs, if they get involved with the program. In the case of the nasty creek described above, this reimbursement would help to offset the cost of fencing the cattle out of the stream and associated wetlands on the property.

Tyler Macmillan tours a property with a landowner that has applied for RCPP funding. Photo by Becc Armstrong.

The Little Aucilla River is one of many waterways that will directly benefit from activities conducted through this project. Photo by Peter Kleinhenz.

Our NRCS-RCPP project, “Red Hills to the Coast, Connecting Land and Water,” covers the St. Marks and Aucilla River watersheds in both Florida and Georgia. From July to September, landowners throughout the Florida portion of these watersheds got in touch with the RCPP team about getting land management activities implemented on their properties. These are landowners that run the gamut of financial resources, age, knowledge, and property size. However, one common thread exists between all of them: an interest in making their property more ecologically-friendly.

Our small team works with the landowners from beginning to end. First, we help landowners fill out the correct forms to apply for the program. Next, we visit properties with the landowners to understand their wishes for the property and to assess what land management practices are most needed. From these visits, we develop maps and lists of potential practices to administer. After the application period ends, applications get ranked based on questions about natural resource concerns, the potential for land management to benefit listed species, acreage to be treated, and more.

The landowners fortunate enough to get selected for funding enter into contracts with NRCS, either to hire contractors or to do the management work themselves, and then get reimbursed for 75% of their cost based on NRCS rates for each type of management activity. If this all sounds complex, that’s because it is. But this program, at the end of the day, gets the work done and is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year over the next five years to do just that.

Fire-suppressed longleaf pine forest will benefit greatly from prescribed burning implemented by this RCPP project. Photo by Tyler Macmillan.

In our first year, nearly 30 Florida landowners representing over 7,000 acres applied for assistance through the Tall Timbers RCPP program. It’s unlikely that we will have enough funding to help all of them, but we will accomplish as much as we can. Executing these land management activities will benefit native species, improve water quality and quantity in the watersheds, and reduce public safety threats by reducing fuel loads using prescribed fire. For many landowners, involvement with this program will get the ball rolling on land management that can continue indefinitely.

The wild thing about the Tall Timbers RCPP project is that this land management component is just one piece of a larger project that includes everything from oyster restoration, to purchased conservation easements, to an economic impact study, to a social survey to understand attitudes about conservation in these watersheds. In other words, our team is busy, but we are motivated by the fact that we are helping to improve and conserve properties that, in many cases, would not be improved or conserved without this program’s help. That feels good.

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