All posts by Rob

About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a producer, editor, and director for WFSU-TV. He has produced and edited documentaries such as Keys & Hammers, Never the Same Way Twice, and Not Your Mother's Classical, and is also the co-creator of WFSU's music performance program, outloud. Over the last three years, Rob has collaborated with Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro on In the Grass, On the Reef. View some of Rob's work here.

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.
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Video: Cycling North Florida’s Capital City to the Sea Trail

Video: Cycling the Capital City to the Sea Trail. Project managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa show us the highlights of the planned 120 mile loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead.  They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure.  Over the next decade, this will be part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead. They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure. Over the next decade, it will become part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

I’ve often described our EcoAdventures as a glimpse of unpaved Florida, so this video is somewhat of an anomaly.  The Capital City to the Sea Trail is a twelve foot wide paved “multi-use” trail that will connect towns and outdoor destinations in Leon and Wakulla County.  Pedestrians can walk or run it, and its width means that slower cyclists (such as children or me when I finally get a bike) can share the space with faster bikes.  As you see in the video above, two cyclists going one way can pass two cyclists going the opposite way.  It’s off of the main road, so it’s a safer way to get to the coast than to ride on the highway.  Or it will be, anyway.  Most of the trail has yet to be built.

Plans for the CC2ST have gone through a process of public meetings, where citizen feedback has directed priorities for segment construction, and in some cases, redirected the trail itself.  Project Managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa took us along the planned route.  It takes existing stretches, such as the popular St. Marks Trail (between Tallahassee and St. Marks), the Ochlockonee Bay Trail, and the Trout Pond Trail, and connects them with the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla Springs (not originally planned but added after citizens requested it), Panacea, Mashes Sands, Sopchoppy, and Capital Cascades Park in Tallahassee.  When it is completed, there will be 120 miles of the CC2ST forming a loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

 The trail is more complex than shown in most of the map graphics in the video.  Here is a current map of the proposed trails.  This plan will be finalized and presented to the public in March of 2014.

Jon hopes to begin construction in the next two to three years, with the trail not likely to be completed for at least a decade.  That’s a lot of waiting.  And it won’t be cheap.  I have a few notes on the potential cost and economic benefits, as well as a few other tidbits about the trail.  I also want to note that I have recently become part of this process as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ve been finding the process through which trails get made and connected together interesting.  The goal is to connect as many trails as possible and give people options for both shorter or multi-day outdoor adventures.  Anyhow, my notes on CC2ST:

  • Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT) estimates that every mile of multi-use trail costs about $550,000 to construct.  There is a cost for the design of a project, as well as for determining environmental impact.  In some cases property needs to be bought.  A lot of the time, the trail is built on public land.
  • Let’s use the two segments that would complete the Ochlockonee Bay Trail as an example.  Two parts of this trail already exist, but two more segments totaling 2.95 miles are needed to form an uninterrupted trail between Mashes Sands and Sopchoppy.  An estimated $368,750 is estimated to be needed to acquire land for the trail, $295,000 for the design (the contour of the land and roadways it crosses need to be traversed), and $1,475,000 for construction.  That’s a rough ratio of one million dollars to 1.5 miles of completed trail.  The good news in this case is that the Florida Department of Transportation is funding these segments.  Which brings me to…
  • The money for the CC2ST will likely come from many sources.  DOT works with the OGT on state trails as they are an alternative form of transportation.  Also, many proposed trails run along roads, so they can be incorporated into road construction projects.  Private donors will be sought, and many might be businesses along the trail.
  • A recent study on Orange County trails by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council estimated that their trails system accounted for $42.6 million in revenue and 516 jobs for 2010.  The trails studied totaled 35.9 miles (they are in the process of expanding).  The study cites spending by cyclists at businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and bike shops, an increase in real estate revenue around the trails, and cyclists returning to areas they liked to purchase goods.  Jon shared one such example:
  • Jon Shields Marina, St. Marks has worked on some projects with Chuck Shields, longtime mayor of St. Marks and owner of Shields Marina.  Shields has told Jon that many of the marina’s clients learn about it through the St. Marks Trail.  They ride down, see the marina, and when they want to buy a boat, they come back.  In theory, more trail equals more opportunity for businesses to be seen.
  • When completed, this will be Florida’s largest multi-use trail.  The CC2ST team believes that this will make it the top Florida cycling destination.
  • One of my concerns, when I saw that the trail would run along US 98 in Wakulla, is how it would interact with the marshes on the side of the road.  As you head south of Panacea on the way to Ochlockonee Bay, there are considerable marshes on either side of the road.  They’re an attractive feature, and a productive ecosystem.  Jon says that in those places, the trail will run along the land side of the highway on a raised boardwalk.  They are designing it with the view from the road in mind, as they don’t want to block the scenery.
  • Now that the plan for the CC2ST has gone through three public workshops and all feedback has been collected, Kimley-Horn and Associates will finalize it and present it in March of 2014.  We’ll keep you posted on day and time when we know.

A few notes from the recent meeting of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council:

  • Liz Sparks is now the Paddling Trails Coordinator at the OGT.  She had held a similar position with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (during which she took us out on the Apalachicola WEA and Slave Canal).  One of her main projects is finding campsites along the Chipola River to facilitate multi-day kayak camping trips.  We recently wrote a piece on the Apalachicola Blueway Guide; there would likely be a similar resource for this.  And, as the Chipola joins with the Apalachicola, there would be more opportunity for mix-and-match paddle adventures.
  • Her other big project is to close gaps in the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  A gap is defined as a stretch of over 20 miles with no campsite.  Locally, there is a stretch of about 30 miles near Tyndall Airforce base where she’s looking to find a site to designate.  As Liz tells us, people are currently having to make arrangements to travel inland to camp, which takes away from the coastal adventure feel. (Watch our video on the FCSPT Forgotten Coast Segment)
  • One mission of the council is to create ecological corridors as well as trail corridors.  Tom Hoctor presented his recommendations for the Florida Ecological Greenway Network.  The idea is to preserve or create corridors of undeveloped land to give animals such as panthers and bears space to roam.  Another interesting goal of the FEGN is to provide a corridor into which coastal habitats can retreat as sea level rises.  Locally, a big priority is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge area.  They are looking at establishing a corridor along the Wakulla or Aucilla Rivers and in the Red Hills area around Tallahassee.  The idea is to give some space for salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds to move along with the receding intertidal zone.  In the Grass, On the Reef, Right In Your Front Lawn.

Well, that’s it for us in 2013.  This has been our busiest year on In the Grass, On the Reef.  I feel we found a nice balance between exploring our natural areas through EcoAdventures and deepening our understanding of our coasts through Randall and David’s research.  While the oyster crisis in Apalachicola Bay seemed to dominate our focus at times, we still hit up oyster reefs and salt marshes from St. Marks to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’ll be working on a year-in-review post soon.  As for next year, people have already begun coming to us with new EcoAdventure ideas.  And we’ve started editing the second In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, which will air this spring.  I’ll have much more information on that soon.  Until then, have a Happy New Year!

Music in the piece by Airtone and Tigoolio.
Jon and Jack on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail

Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail. On In the Grass, On the Reef, even videos on bicycling have oysters and marshes.