ALL PHOTOS: MOLLY O’CONNOR
Continuing our “ecotour” of the Florida Panhandle along the ICW, this month’s stop is in Walton County. Arguably one of the fastest growing counties in the state, South Walton has become a favorite with many. Relatively undeveloped (as compared to neighboring counties) Walton has an opportunity to develop smarter… and for a lot of it – they have.
Entering Walton County from the west you leave the concentrated tourism of Destin and enter Sandestin. Though still highly developed it slowly gives way to the Point Washington area and more open ground. Here you begin to encounter the famous Dune Lakes. There are no barrier islands along the coastline of Walton County. Instead the Gulf meets the peninsula separating it from Choctawhatchee Bay to the north. Along the Gulf there are magnificent dune fields and freshwater lakes that periodically are open to the Gulf. The lakes are unique in that they have freshwater habitats and tannic waters as well as saltmarsh and seawater when their “mouths” are open. This unique situation provides an ecosystem found in few places in our state. The now famous 30-A travels along these dune lakes across the entire of South Walton. Two state parks, a state forest, a bike trail, and small communities dot this famous trail.
Between 30-A and the Intracoastal Waterway to the north lies the Point Washington State Forest. Here lie acres of well managed pine forest. There are many trails that can be hiked, driven, or traversed by horseback. There are several trails here that are part of state forest’s Trailwalker Program. A major part of this well managed forest is prescribed burning.
Now days many are aware of the forest management tool we call “prescribed burning”… but not all. For many people, fires are “wild” and the smoke they generate is an unwanted pain. Much of the southeast, particularly Florida, encounter thunderstorms with frequent lighting. These lighting strikes spark fires which burn across acres of forest. The frequency of the lighting storms – and fires – actually kept the understory below the pines cleared and so the fires typically burned low and slow. The result was an understory of grasses and wildflowers that supported a wide variety of species including deer and quail. When he traveled through the southeast in 1775, William Bartram described the longleaf forest as “open and monotonous – going on for miles”. And this was the case… you could literally see up to a mile across the landscape. But this “monotonous” landscape was misleading in that there were thousands of species found here – many feel one of the most biological diverse systems anywhere.
Today 90% of the longleaf has been logged and much of what remains is fire suppressed. For the reasons mentioned above, residents have resisted the natural burns and many species – gopher tortoises, quail, and indigo snakes to name three – have suffered as well. There is a move across the southeast to restore the old longleaf pine forest. These trees produce excellent timber – though it takes longer to grow than the loblolly and slash pine currently grown – and many are managing their property for quail and deer hunting. Yes… the smoke is a problem but the state forestry system plans their burns to reduce the impact it has on the local community as best they can. If you really want to see the benefits of a well-managed pine forest, take a hike through one – it truly is amazing.