GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Bob Simons has restored hundreds of acres across north-central Florida to longleaf pine forests and watched as gopher tortoises, birds and blackberries moved in.
In the process, he has helped filter water that eventually makes its way into the aquifer, rivers and lakes - a key concern in a region where groundwater is being depleted and springs are being polluted.
And Simons earns money from these forests.
Recently, landowners, scientists and conservationists got a first-hand look at the varied benefits of restoration on a tour of more than 100 acres that Simons owns just north of High Springs as part of a forest stewardship program sponsored by several agencies.
"I've been managing pine plantations for 55 years, starting as a teenager in high school, and I have about 11 longleaf plantations. Most have been done for economic reasons - we have to make a living at it," Simons said, adding that he planted about 40,000 plugs at his High Springs property. "They don't get any water, and they don't get any fertilizer. If they make it, they make it. They are tough."
Roughly half the property is sandy uplands that will grow into the classic Florida longleaf savanna of pines with an understory of wire grass, palmetto and other native vegetation.
The other half is hardwood buffer along a quarter-mile of the Santa Fe River. Simons and his wife, Erika, have a conservation easement on the land that earns them tax credits in return for giving up the right to develop the land.
Both the land and water benefit from plantations such as Simons', said Chris Demers, forest stewardship coordinator with the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.
"Restoring the upland longleaf forest that was there before European settlement - that filters the water through those deep sands, and it protects the water that way," Demers said. "He's got this bottomland hardwood buffer along the Santa Fe River that also helps protect it."
Much of the native longleaf forest in Florida has been lost through logging and development.
Now, tree farms are often densely planted in slash pines, which grow quickly. Because of the growing methods, the plantations lack the plant and animal diversity and the functions of a natural forest.
About 30 people joined the recent tour. Simons was peppered with questions about his techniques in clearing and replanting the land, troubleshooting problems that arise, tips for managing the land and many more issues.
Karla Gaskins of Fort White has inherited a family farm on the Alapaha River in South Georgia that she is restoring to a longleaf forest.
"I have 1,300 acres, and my stepmother has 2,500, and we have just recently established the Gaskins Forest Education Center - which was a lifetime dream of my father's," she said. "We want to do this for the habitat, the environment and to pass something worthwhile on to my children and my grandchildren."
David Conser, Alachua County forester for the Florida Forest Service, said more private landowners are giving longleaf restoration a shot.
Incentives are offered from various agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The restoration of longleaf pine has become really en vogue right now. It's really become popular," Conser said. "There are cost-sharing possibilities. This species used to cover 90 million acres across the Southeast, and now it's down to 3 million. And that 3 million, very little has the native groundcover. The groundcover makes it the second-most diverse ecosystems on terrestrial Earth behind rainforests."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.