Florida's Big Bend Wildlife Refuges
It had been timbered out and what was left was just rough pasture. Everything that has come back has come back by natural diversity. But environmental litigants looked at our forest management and said this isn't rightand they were right.
Joe White was talking about the early days of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Big Bend. The refuge was established in 1931 for wintering migratory birds with several fund sources and grew to contain 64,934 acres of land and water, 23,000 acres of which is forested. Seven rivers and numerous creeks help keep nearly 39,000 acres in wetland.
Only 3 years on the job as St. Marks NWR manager, White enthusiastically began planning changes in the forest management practices that had been modeled after those used by the U.S. Forest Service, practices that White says were really an economic approach."It took about 15 years to divert from the Forest Service management program to one that favors the ecosystem," reported White, "and now the Forest Service is trying to change its practices, too."
Justifiably proud of the reforms, White says that selective harvests, tree thinning, and replacement of remaining slash pine with native longleaf pine are the basic elements of the ecosystem approach. "Benefits of a forest are most evident in its understory because most wildlife use is on the forest floor. We can't have a good understory without sunshine," says White, accounting for the end of the dense commercial stands and use of periodic burning to replicate the benefits of natural fires caused by lightning.
Joe White left St. Marks one of the best managed and most popular refuges in the system after a 40 year career with FWS and over 20 years as refuge manager, retiring to private life at the end of 1996 and turning his duties over to manager James Burnett.
Burnett delighted in picking up where White left off, impressed by White's land management practices, and in total agreement with his eagerness to fill in ecosystem gaps and to straighten boundary lines. In addition, Burnett is a strong advocate of comprehensive planning, frustrated by the lack of it in the past when he and others had to watch the "resource" waste away, and impatient over having to wait until 2006 to begin St. Marks plan which he says will be a real opportunity to put forward the refuge system.
"So far the refuge has escaped explosive development, but real pressures are growing," says Barnett, referring to the capital city of Tallahassee 20 miles north.
As it is, the refuge is used by an estimated 300,000 visitors each year. Hikers are attracted by the 75 miles of trails in the St. Marks unit alone, one of the three sub-divisions of the refuge. A 41 mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail passes through the refuge. Wildlife viewing is popular from the trails or from stops along the 7 mile Lighthouse Road, both providing views of the refuge impoundments, carved out of coastal marsh by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Canoeing, deer and small game hunting, and fishing are also popular activities. An adjacent 31,500 acre area of open water in Apalachee Bay is closed by Presidential proclamation to the taking or harassing of migratory birds. Waterfowl hunting is not permitted.
The use of airboats by commercial fishers along the shores in the proclamation area and elsewhere on the refuge is a problem that nagged White and one that Barnett still faces. Not only are the boats disturbing to feeding and resting water birds, they also spray larvae and other marine organisms out of water where they perish. Discontinuation is complicated because it involves state jurisdiction of the water and the bottom. In a similar situation, however, J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR won state cooperation to give the refuge greater law enforcement authority in coastal water areas.
An 80 foot high national historic landmark stands at the end of county road 59 (Lighthouse Road) that traverses the St. Marks unit of the refuge. The historic lighthouse was built in 1866 after three other structures were abandoned, the last one the result of mining by Confederate troops in 1865 to thwart approaching Union ships. The now electrically powered light is reportedly seen 15 miles away.
The list of watchable wildlife is almost endless. From February to May, the refuge is blessed with blankets of glorious wildflowers. Thousands of monarch butterflies come to the refuge in late October and early November, pausing on this last landfall before tackling the migratory flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
Alligators are common with some 2,500 estimated to be in the refuge along with white-tailed deer, cotton tail and marsh rabbits, armadillo, and feral hogs.
Depending on the season, birders will revel at the variety of birds to be seen, over 270 species considered regular inhabitants and a score of others that have been seen at least once. One writer recalls having seen a Hudsonian godwit, a Lapland longspur, and a black-necked stilt and American avocet"following each other like soul mates."
Wintering waterfowl include green-winged teal, redhead, scaup, coot, pintail, and bufflehead. Tricolored, black-crowned night, great blue, and little blue herons; and great and snowy egrets all nest in refuge rookeries. Numerous shorebird species are there during migrations. Both bald eagles and opreys maintain a number of nests. Wood storks are occasional.
If the ecosystem approach at St. Marks is Joe White's legacy, then refuge outreach will be Robin Will's. Will has created a virtual firestorm of activity in the areas of interpretation and education during her 17 years as refuge wildlife interpretive specialist. Coastal cleanup, a butterfly festival, a refuge scavenger hunt, open house, and duck tours are programmed by Will in the last four months of 1997 alone. She plans more duck tours, an Envirothon for high school students, a Welcome Back Songbird Festival, and annual lighthouse tour in the first four months of 1998. She oversees an education program that involves over 5,000 local school children in a year.
Will's strong connections with the local community surprised even her at her first Arbor Day event. Following one morning of longleaf pine planting by local fourth graders, family turnout the next day was so great that all 2,000 longleaf pine seedlings were planted two hours earlier than expected. The plant-a-tree event is part of the refuge plan to restore native trees and continues each January, but the number of seedlings has been increased to some 5,000.
Ask Will what her favorite project is and she will say that it is enlisting refuge volunteers, although the St. Marks Refuge Association rates pretty high, too. Many of the volunteers are also members of the association, conceived under Will's direction and now an invaluable refuge support group. The association runs the refuge retail shop and prints The St. Marks Light, a top flight refuge newsletter, besides funding projects for visitors and sponsoring events and educational programs.
Refuge volunteers help produce the newsletter and staff the retail shop, count water birds and check water level gauges, assist researchers, serve as visitor center receptionists, and maintain the refuge wildflower album.
"The best wildlife diversity you'll see anywhere in this country," is what former manager White says about St. Marks. Go see for yourself and you will also see the kinder, gentler management of forest land that he was thankful to be forced into.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication