February 14, 2017|By Lauren Day and Kelly Russell| Partnerships

Few projects have generated such support and synergy as the effort to connect Osceola National Forest and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northern Florida. Thirty years ago these two conservation areas were not connected. Numerous activities—from mining to development—threatened to cut them off from each other. So in 1988, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and numerous state, federal, and non-profit partners began to build that connection by protecting lands within the “Pinhook Purchase Unit.” With The Conservation Fund’s transfer of the final portion of the 9819-acre VZ Timberlands property in early 2017, more than 80% of the that original unit has now been protected—a rare and significant milestone and one of the great success stories of the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s (LWCF) Longleaf Pine Collaborative Landscape Planning initiative.

2 14 Osceola Map
This map shows northern Florida in 1988 when Osceola National Forest and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge were not connected. The Pinhook Purchase Unit is now 80% protected, creating an ecological corridor that spans >700,000 acres of conserved lands. Map courtesy USFS.

Located within the headwaters of the renowned Suwannee River, the VZ Timberlands property was a top priority for decades within the historic nine-state longleaf pine range. In partnership with USFS, The Conservation Fund stepped in to acquire the tract when it went up for auction and hold it until funding from LWCF became available. LWCF funding was appropriated by the U.S. Congress, including Florida’s congressional delegation, U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Ted Yoho, over three fiscal years. USFS’ nationally-competitive LWCF process determined this effort was the #1 priority for the LWCF-Florida-Georgia Longleaf Pine Collaborative Landscape Planning initiative. This expansive property provides habitat for longleaf restoration, while enhancing the ecological corridor connecting Osceola National Forest and Okefenokee NWR, which encompasses more than 700,000 acres of conserved lands and is one of the largest conservation corridors east of the Mississippi.

This property will now be restored as part of Osceola National Forest with the help of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which aims to increase restoration of prominent forests across the country. Ongoing timber harvesting and restoration activities, as well as the numerous recreational opportunities at the Forest, will continue to enhance and diversify the local economy.

2 14 CWard2012 26666USFS will continue to focus on long-term restoration of the lands in their ownership to address ecosystem health as well as public needs and desires. Photo of Osceola National Forest by Carlton Ward Jr.

Equally important, the property supports the health of one of the largest, intact watersheds in the eastern United States. It protects water quality and quantity in the Suwannee River and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico; as well as within the Floridan Aquifer, the state’s largest source of drinking water.

The native wildlife of the area will also benefit. The longleaf pine ecosystem is one of the most ecologically diverse, with 29 threatened and endangered species and more than 900 plants found nowhere else in the world. This newly protected property includes habitat for Florida black bear, gopher tortoise, gopher frog, wood stork, and others.

2 14 Florida black bear cub cFlorida Fish and WildlifeThe newly protected property provides habitat for an abundance of wildlife, including Florida black bears. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr.

The Fund and USFS are grateful to the National Park Service for their acquisition support in Florida. We are proud to be a part of this decades-long, public and private partnership effort to connect Osceola National Forest and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge—one of the great conservation partnerships and success stories of our time.

Read more about importance of longleaf pine restoration on a landscape-scale and the momentum underway through private-public partnerships: 

The Conservation Fund and The Longleaf Alliance are both members of the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative-Partnership Council and work with many partners to restore and conserve longleaf pine forests across the southeastern Unites States in order to achieve conservation solutions that benefit both the environment and local communities.

The Conservation Fund is continuing its legacy of longleaf pine conservation with the support of public private partnerships.