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Video: Water Sport and the Value of Land in the Red Hills

The name Red Hills is perhaps underused by those of us who actually live here. That’s why the folks at Tall Timbers set out to reintroduce us to the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, from Thomasville to Tallahassee to Monticello. In defining this eco-region and the benefits we receive from living here, I gained a new perspective on our longer running exploration of the Forgotten Coast and its own gifts and uniqueness. I’ve often written about miles of unspoiled coastline and how that benefits our seafood industry. But any large healthy tree has an equally large root system that we don’t see, and for our estuaries these are miles of unspoiled river banks, sloughs, springs, and lakes. In our last EcoAdventure we hiked along sloughs in the backlands of the Apalachicola River floodplain, little fingers reaching into the nutrient rich muck to send it on its way to the bay. In the video above, we visit the lakes of north Leon County, through which water enters the Floridan Aquifer. This is our water, the water I’m drinking as I write this. It’s the water that feeds our springs, such as those that in turn feed the Wacissa River. That water emerges from Wakulla Springs, which flows into the Wakulla River and down to Apalachee Bay.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

This adventure was about more than just the lakes, which were great to kayak and SUP. These lakes are protected by forested land that filters storm water runoff and buffers them from pollution. That’s an ecosystem service the land provides. That’s a value that we receive, as consumers of the water. We also receive the benefit of having the land to visit as parkland or, for the hunters who own private forested lands north of Tallahassee, to hunt animals sheltered in the habitat.

There is often this tension between ecology and economy, a perception that land has more value if it can be sold as real estate or built upon with stores and offices. That’s why there has been a push in recent years to put a dollar amount on ecosystem services. In our collaboration with Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, we’ve cited a study that determined the value of a salt marsh. Tall Timbers has been promoting a similar study conducted at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry an Natural Resources on the services provided by the Red Hills. For a detailed look at how Dr. Rebecca Moore determined the value of services, click here.

The total value of Red Hills ecosystem services determined by the study are $1.136 billion per year.  We focus on groundwater recharge ($229 million) and water supply protection ($615 million) in the video. Another service is pollination, at a value of $60 million. That means that the forested land around town supports pollinating species like bees and butterflies to the advantage of both farmers and us amateur gardeners. Aesthetic value is listed as $163 million.

The one thing that has surprised me the most since I started talking to Tall Timbers about this piece is that much of the forested land providing these services is privately owned. Tall Timbers estimates that there are 445,000 acres of forested land in the greater Red Hills Region. Over 300,000 acres are privately held on largely contiguous quail hunting properties. Many of these properties were purchased in the 1800s and early 1900s, sparing them from logging and preserving old growth coastal plain forest. These forests, and the bobwhite quail that live there, are what drew people here.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy

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Henry L. Beadle on Lake Iamonia, 1924. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

One of the people drawn to the Red Hills was Henry L. Beadle. His hunting plantation on Lake Iamonia is where, in 1958, Tall Timbers was established. It was his desire to have a place to conduct research on fire ecology and its effect on “quail, turkey and other wildlife, as well as on vegetation of value as cover and food for wildlife.” While hunters in the area had made use of fire to manage the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystems on their property, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it became a mainstream practice (get two land managers together and see if they don’t start trading fire stories). Tall Timbers mission is to “foster exemplary land stewardship” while also “respecting the rights and recognizing the responsibilities of private property ownership.” They are advocates of “smart growth,” development with a broader view of economic feasibility. That means factoring in the value of ecosystem services when planning new development.

Lake Iamonia

It seemed like the appropriate place to begin the adventure. It’s Leon County’s largest natural lake, and it has an interesting hydrology. Michael Hill from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met us on the lake to talk about the work he and FWC have done to restore the lake. I met Michael for the first time last fall on Lake Lafayette. Like Lakes Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee, Lake Lafayette has a sinkhole that connects to the Floridan Aquifer. All of these lakes had natural dry down cycles, where the lake would cyclically empty and refill. In the early twentieth century, people viewed this draining as an ecological catastrophe.  They set out to “save the lakes.” They built earthen dams to isolate the sinkholes from their lakes. This kept the lakes full, but disrupted much of their ecology. On Lake Lafayette, Michael showed us the effects of a lake not being able to go through its normal drought/ rain cycles. Muck builds up on the bottoms of these lakes, and floating islands of vegetation called tussocks form. This alters the habitat for fish and other species. And removing tussocks is an expensive process involving herbicides and heavy machinery.

Water overflows from the Ochlockonee River on February 27, 2013.

Water flows under the twin bridges on Meridian Road, from the Ochlockonee River into Lake Iamonia.  February 27, 2013.  Photo by Michael Hill, FWC.

Lake Iamonia’s dam failed, however, and the gates were removed. This allowed the lake to dry down again, and for FWC to come in and scrape the muck off of the bottom. “We’d seen that there were two to four feet of Muck,” Michael told a gathered group of Tall Timbers employees. “Muck is aquatic plants. It’s at advanced stages of decomposition.” When the lake dries down naturally, the sun dries the bottom. When it doesn’t, muck accumulates. Seeds start growing in it, and it starts to float on the surface of the water as islands. The fish that spawn on the lake bottom prefer a sandier surface, so muck inhibits them. During Iamonia’s last dry down, FWC removed 23 acres of muck. Last year, they removed 25 more. But just as the lake was full for 40 years, Michael thinks it might take another 40 or 50 more for the muck to completely disappear.

The other interesting feature of the lake is its relationship with the Ochlockonee River. While the river does not flow directly into Lake Iamonia, it does feed the lake by overflowing into it. Michael shared some photos of this flooding, which mainly passes under Meridian Road at the twin bridges that run alongside the lake. Iamonia dries down every seven years, and it is filled by rain and by the flooding Ochlockonee.

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

After we left Michael, we went not to Leon County’s other major lake, but to land adjacent to it. It was a cooperative purchase between the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD). “Their interest was the activity centers; the ball fields and the soccer complex,” Said NFWMD’s Tyler Macmillan. “Our interest was a passive recreation area that protected Lake Jackson.” Hiking through when we did, during the rainy season, we saw a variety of water features at Klapp-Phipps Park. The were small creeks and swamps as well as places where stormwater runoff ran alongside or directly on the path. One number I found interesting in the Ecosystem services report was the value of urban/ suburban forested wetlands. Rural forested wetlands are valued around $4,600 an acre annually; those in urban/ suburban areas are valued at $8,200. The reason for the disparity is that urban wetlands are less common and, in a sense, work harder to abate pollution and filter runoff.

For Tallahasseeans who like to hit park trails, these are great. There are miles of trails in this network; it’s not hard to get lost. After years of walking greenways and trails in Tallahassee parks (we have quite a few), I’m surprised it took me so long to find this one.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze.

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze for Georgia.

When I think of this park, I think of flowers. And pollen. Years ago when I produced WFSU’s music show, outloud, we brought local zheng player Haiqiong Deng to the gardens to record a few pieces. Spring had just sprung, and after every piece we stopped to wipe a layer of yellow dust off of her instrument and our gear. The combination of music and setting made it one of my favorite episodes of the show, which ran for almost ten years.

The park has much more than these gardens, with miles of trails and Lake Hall, which I managed to not fall into while learning to stand up paddleboard (I do come close, as you can see). It’s a place where you can take your kayak, canoe, SUP, or sailboat and not worry about motorboats. Lake Hall is considered to have some of the best water quality in Leon County. Park manager Elizabeth Weidner told us that in recent years they have installed collection ponds adjacent to the roadways around the park to collect stormwater runoff.

I had a great time exploring these places, and gaining a larger perspective on how water moves through a watershed and beneath us in the aquifer.  We’ll be further expanding upon this theme while we continue to look for great places to spend a day (or more).  I don’t like to jinx myself by saying what we’ll be shooting in the coming weeks, as the weather can be uncooperative (we got the video above on our third try).  Let’s just say we’ve planned a hike in a place with a reputation for being difficult and are heading back to the Apalachicola basin for a seasonal treat.

Hiking in the NorthWest Florida Water Management District land along the Apalachicola River.

Video: Hiking Around the Apalachicola River

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Apalachicola Riverwalk

Dr. Todd Engstrom seeks a path around the many sloughs in our way. On Day 3 of the Apalachicola River Walk, he was taking us to patches of old growth forest where the extinct ivory billed woodpecker might have made a habitat. While north Florida looks largely “untouched,” much of it has been cut for timber at some point in the last couple of hundred years. There are trees that escaped this fate.  They are hundreds of years old and not altogether common.

I fell in love with the idea the first time I heard of it, this walk along the land surrounding the Apalachicola River.  I was standing on a sandbar just north of Alum Bluff.  After a day of kayaking the river, we set up camp and got to socializing.  Doug Alderson told me of this thought of his, a hike taking about seven days, from the top of the river to the bottom.  You can see how the river changes as you paddle, from tall bluffs in the north on down to the marshy delta.   We would be in those systems as opposed to passing by them on the water.

What you see in the video above is the first attempt of what could become an annual event in the RiverTrek mold.  It was a three day hike through some of the most unique ecosystems in the Apalachicola basin.  Torreya State Park and The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve make you work harder than any other trails in Florida.  And Doug & co. didn’t always stick to trails either, bushwhacking through steephead ravines and caves (remember Means Creek from RiverTrek?).

We joined them on the third day.  Luckily I did have previously unused footage of hikes in the afforementioned lands to illustrate the nature of those places.  On the third day, however, we hiked on land owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, just across the river from Wewahitchka.  It is flat terrain, crisscrossed with those crucially important veins and capillaries of the river- sloughs.  I had a great time catching up with my RiverTrek friends (including the scene stealing Zone 5), exploring wild land, and going wherever the high water let us go.

The protected lands around the river can be appreciated for their own virtues and beauty, but they also serve to protect the river and bay (and yes, the oysters, assuming that conditions are otherwise normal).  The following is a quick guide to the lands around the Apalachicola, and a little about ecotourism opportunities on each (I listed them from north to south along the main channel):

Torreya State Park

Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Florida torreya for which the park is named is a critically endangered tree found almost exclusively on the bluffs of the Apalachicola River. The park sports one full camp site with electric and water hookups, restrooms, and a YURT (Year-round Universal Recreational Tent), as well as three primitive camping sites, and two youth camping sites meant for large groups (like Boy Scout troops). The River Walkers were staying at one of the Youth sites. There are also two trail loops, one of which takes you by the Gregory House. The Gregory House is a fully furnished plantation home built in 1849 and which was moved onto a bluff overlooking the river (If the water is low enough, there is a sandbar across the river where paddlers can eat lunch and have a view of the house as well).

The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve

Todd Engstrom climbs up side of steephead ravineMuch of the Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is not open to the public, being instead dedicated to restoration efforts: restoring sandhill habitat, managing a fire regime on upland pine forests, and restoring the flow of streams into the river channel. The Preserve is also home to a unique ecosystem, the steephead ravine, which forms over years when seeps of water cut into sand or clay hills. Steepheads are, as the name suggests, steep (I know, I was surprised too!), and make for some challenging hiking. The Preserve’s Garden of Eden trail runs through steepheads on the way to Alum Bluff, the highest point above the river and a spectacular view. You can watch us hike the Garden of Eden at the beginning of our RiverTrek 2013 Part 1 video. You can also watch us climb Alum Bluff the hard way on RiverTrek 2012.

The Northwest Florida Water Management District

Hiking along the Apalachicola RiverThis is not a place you would ever find if you weren’t specifically looking for it. In fact, if you click on the link above they don’t even really tell you where to find their land on the river. Traveling south of Bristol on C379, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see signs for Forest Road 188 and for a boat ramp. This is the ramp for the Florida River, and where you’ll find the trails we explored in the video above. The spent shell casings testify to someone knowing that this place was there, and also serve as a reminder to wear bright colors if you visit here during hunting seasons.

Apalachicola National Forest

This is Florida’s largest National Forest, ranging from just near Tallahassee to the Apalachicola River. That’s a lot of protected land that buffers six different watersheds. Right near the Apalachicola, a big attraction is wildlife watching. This part of the forest is a stronghold for the near threatened red cockaded woodpecker. As you drive down County Road 65, you’ll see trees with white bands painted around their trunks. Those trees may have holes that drip sap- this deters snakes from climbing up. As the sun sets, the RCW flies back into its hole. Also near the river is Sumatra, where in late spring an incredible array of carnivorous plants will bloom.

Tate’s Hell State Forest

Graham Creek in Tate's Hell

Graham Creek in Tate’s Hell State Forest

Where E.E. Callaway found the Garden of Eden on the bluffs of the north river, Cebe Tate found hell in this forest to the south. I’ll refer you to our EcoAdventure on the lower river to get the full story. The Tate’s Hell Swamp drains into the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the forest also includes 35 miles of paddle trails, including Cash Creek and Graham Creek (which you’ll see in the linked video). There is also camping and hunting in the forest; refer to the link above for information on fees and permits.

Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area

Sand Beach Observation Tower

Sand Beach, overlooking East Bay

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages much of the land on the lower river, where creeks and tributary rivers braid the main channel. FWC has maps available for paddlers looking to explore the many waterways on the WEA and in Tate’s Hell.  The Sand Beach observation tower provides a nice view of the East Bay and the many birds and other critters that make use of it. You can get a taste of the recreational opportunities on the WEA on our aforementioned south river EcoAdventure.

St. George Island State Park

Blue Heron on Saint George Island BeachAnd of course, once you’ve made your way down the river, you can keep following the water and enjoy some camping, hiking, and beach time on one of the barrier islands that close the bay and protect the oysters from the side opposite the river.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve explored this watershed from the top of Alum Bluff to the bottom of Apalachicola Bay.    And we’re nowhere near done, either.  But the WFSU viewing area is rich in ecological marvels.  An upcoming focus of ours will be the many watersheds that span from the Big Bend to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’d like to further highlight the connections between the many terrestrial and freshwater features of our areas and our coasts. And that includes urban settings like Tallahassee, whose lakes and sloughs feed both the Ochlockonee and St. Marks Watersheds.  In some cases, we’ve already covered a few links in the chain through EcoAdventures and In the Grass, On the Reef research pieces.  Now it’s time to fill in the gaps and start looking at the bigger picture, as we’ve been doing on the Apalachicola.

Interested in paddling the Apalachicola?  Check out this post I wrote a few months ago on planning a trip using the Apalachicola Blueway Guide.

Music in the piece by Freeky Cleen and Dickey F.
Black mangrove propagules.

VIDEO- Mangroves and Cold, & Oyster Doctors Airs on WFSU

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wednesday, March 19 at 8 PM on WFSU-TV, catch the broadcast premiere of the new In the Grass, On the Reef documentary: Oyster Doctors.

Withered Black Mangrove

Although it was a relatively mild winter, one or two harsh cold snaps provided Randall an opportunity to test black mangrove survivorship in north Florida marshes, where it has become a more frequent resident.

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with wrapping up the National Science Foundation grant that funds a lot of what appears on this blog, and thinking about the future of the project.  The last major piece of funded content is our latest documentary, Oyster Doctors, chronicling four years of research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro.  On the one hand, the show is about learning how coastal ecosystems work.  And it’s about how the inner workings of salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds provide people with jobs, clean water, and protection from erosion and storm surge.  But it’s as much about the ecologists as it is about the ecology.

Randall and David, and their graduate students- Tanya Rogers, Hanna Garland, and Althea Moore- are people who get inspired to pursue a line of research.  They get excited by an idea, like predators affecting prey more through fear than through their eating them.  They get excited about places.  David gets geeked out about predatory snails on Bay Mouth Bar.  Hanna falls in love with Apalachicola and wants to figure out its oyster problem.  Randall makes observations about things she sees in St. Joseph Bay marshes and it sets her on a path.  In one case, that path led her to the video above.

Randall’s interest in black mangroves has unfolded before our eyes on this blog, starting in 2010.  These trees have a range that ends to the south and east of here, yet here they were by her study sites.  To learn more, she started experiments.  Our Oyster Doctor premiere events on March 8 gave her a reason to come down from Massachusetts (she left the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in January of 2013) and check on her mangrove experiments.  These experiments are growing away in the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  One of our premiere events was a walking tour of the Buffer and a visit to the experiment site.  One reason the trees have been spreading in northern Gulf marshes are the warmer winters we’d been having in recent years.  Recent cold snaps let Randall (and a group of interested parties) better see how certain sets of trees in her experiment might survive up here.  And so, as we finished the show, which has its section on the mangrove research, we went right back into the field and gained a little extra knowledge. Nature’s inner workings never stop unfolding.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

In the coming months, we’ll get more posts detailing Randall and David’s findings in the studies we’ve been following.  And then… well, certainly more EcoAdventures.  Through those we can explore all of our area, connecting forests with swamps with rivers and back to the coasts, where this project was born.  As people signed up for the premiere and its associated events, we left a spot for people to tell us about their connection to our local wild spaces.  I’ll be looking those over as we move forward.  I love having a window into what all of you care about.  Likewise, this blog has a comments section!  Tell us what gets you excited about the outdoors, what you’d like to see more of, what’s not being covered?

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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Free Events Across Forgotten Coast Celebrate New WFSU Documentary

Update March 9, 2014 – We’d like to thank everyone who came out for one or more of our events on Saturday. It was a pleasure to meet all of you (photos will be posted soon).  If you missed the premiere, Oyster Doctors will air on WFSU-TV on Wednesday March 19, 8 pm/ 7 ct.  Look for it online shortly after.

(L to R) Graduate student Hanna Garland, WFSU videographer Dan Peeri, oysterman Shawn Hartsfield, and WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas look on as Stephanie Buehler dives in to survey oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Almost four years ago, WFSU began the coastal adventure that is In the Grass, On the Reef.  Now, we want you to join the adventure.  And not through the magic of video- we want you physically there with us (but yeah, we’ll still make a video).

On Saturday, March 8, at the Ft. Coombs Armory in Apalachicola, Florida, we’ll be premiering In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors.  It’s the culmination of these almost four years of losing my shoes in oyster reef and salt marsh mud, of kayaking to field sites in rain, waves, wind, and in those winter tides where the water all but disappears.  It’s that visceral experience, as much as the research and ecology, that we’ve tried to make a part of our videos and blog posts.  Seeing and feeling that magical place where the land meets the sea underlines the need to better understand it.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

In that spirit, we’ll be having a few EcoAdventures where you, our viewers and readers, can join in the fun and get up close and personal with the wild places of our coasts.  There are three opportunities, one in each county of Florida’s Forgotten Coast and in each of its major coastal features.  These are free events, but some have limited spots available.  So register early to be a part of a lottery for these trips (winners will be selected on February 28).

A kayak tour of the animal rich marshes and oyster reefs of the Wakulla Beach unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  A walk through the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve to see the south Florida plant that’s more frequently popping up in north Florida marshes.  And a boat ride connecting the Apalachicola River and its bay, and those troubled oysters that are iconic of the Forgotten Coast.

With these trips, we recreate the IGOR journey in miniature.  Dr. Randall Hughes, our collaborator and one of the “oyster doctors” of our new documentary, will lead us through these first two trips.  In Wakulla Beach, she’ll be joined by Dr. William “Doc” Herrnkind, a retired FSU Coastal & Marine Lab professor and a guru when it comes to the critters that we have followed in this project.  This will be my first time meeting him, though I have heard quite a lot about him over the years from our research collaborators and even members of the community.  When the BBC wanted horse conch footage in our area, this is who they called.

Media attention at Save the Bay Day in Apalachicola

Media and community members gather in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Apalachicola. With Florida’s U.S. Senate delegation in town, residents sent a clear message: Apalachicola oysters deserve their fair share of water from the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin.

For our Apalachicola boat trip, we’ll be led by Apalachicola Riverkeeper‘s Dan Tonsmeire.  I could not be more pleased to have Riverkeeper involved in this event.  Participating in their RiverTrek adventures over the last two years, in addition to being a life changing experience, has added immeasurably to our coverage of the Apalachicola oyster fishery crash.  Of course, when I signed on to paddle in early 2012, I had no idea that Florida’s largest oyster fishery was so close to disaster.  Likewise, when we first applied for the National Science Foundation grant that funds this project, we wrote in a possible Apalachicola premiere not knowing that its oysters would become a large part of our story.

Since we embarked on this journey, Dr. Randall Hughes, Dr. David Kimbro and their crews have let us be there for the twists and turns, failures and successes, and ultimately the discovery that has taken their research in a fascinating new direction.  While pursuing this new direction into animal behavior and it effects on these productive ecosystems, they were also investigating oyster reef failures in drought stricken areas.  On the one hand, they have relentlessly pursued this idea that animal behavior, the menace of a predator, can influence the health of marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds.  On the other hand, does any of that matter if nature one day turns its back on these coastal habitats and cuts off the water?  It’s a question we ask as we delve into this spectacular world.  We’d love for you to join us in Apalachicola for the premiere, and join us on the water (and, I won’t lie, in the muck) as we go In the Grass, and On the Reef, one more time.

Register to attend the premiere of In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors and to participate in pre-screening EcoAdventures!

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Blue crabs are a commercially important species that rely on both salt marsh and oyster reef ecosystems. They are also important predators in these habitats, preying on marsh grass grazing periwinkle snails and oyster eating mud crabs.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.