The Forgotten Coast’s forests are part of the area’s past and are being protected for the futureScenic HistoryThe Forgotten Coast’s pine forests remind us of America’s wilderness past
By Jim Huffstodt
Great swaths of a once-vast continental forest still survive largely intact in the interior of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, giving sustenance and shelter to prowling black bears, soaring bald eagles and darting red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla counties form the heart of a great national treasure recently described by journalist Bill Moyers as “the most environmentally sensitive” natural area in the entire nation.
Here one finds the largest longleaf pine forest remaining in the world, extensive cypress swamps and fertile wetlands. Dismissed by many in the early part of the century as a backwater of barren sand fit mainly for gopher tortoises, the Forgotten Coast now attracts legions of ecotourists and retirees who rightly value it as a pristine refuge from the strip-mall culture of contemporary America.
The forest has been here since time immemorial, long before the ancestors of the American Indian tribes crossed the Bering Strait from Asia 12,000 years ago and slowly migrated south.
This wilderness knew the Creek and Seminole warriors and the armor-clad soldiers of conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez, who camped along the St. Marks river in 1528. The British came later, followed by General Andrew Jackson’s lean and deadly frontier army.
Little Apalachicola became a thriving port city and then faded. Through the decades, men and women made a living harvesting shrimp and oysters from the Gulf, or by planting tobacco and cotton further inland. It was, for most, a hard and isolated existence.
For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Forgotten Coast was populated by a sparse sprinkling of hardy folks who eked out a living through subsistence farming, timber harvesting and commercial fishing. Turpentine camps became notorious as little islands of misery for the wretches who sweated for pennies in an economic peonage not far removed from slavery.
The Depression brought even more hardship, and many jokingly called the ubiquitous gopher tortoises “Hoover chickens.”
However, the 1930s also saw the rise of Ed Ball’s St. Joe Paper Company, which brought thousands of jobs to the local economy. Plantations of pine trees were planted, harvested and trucked to the great mill at Port St. Joe to be transformed into wood pulp and paper.
The natural woodland was diminished over time but never totally vanquished. And, today, at the dawn of a new century, thousands of acres lie protected within the borders of various federal and state sanctuaries.
The largest of these is the Apalachicola National Forest, encompassing 564,961 acres of land, making it the largest national forest in the entire state. This rich natural treasure was born in 1936 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In the beginning, the forest was a ravaged relic of what it had been, a victim of shortsighted forestry practices and the turpentine industry. But over the decades, the U.S. Forest Service rehabilitated the land and restored the forest to much of its original beauty and splendor.
The Apalachicola National Forest is located in Wakulla and Leon counties and attracts thousands of visitors each year. They come to savor the beauty of an ecosystem that includes longleaf pines, wiregrass, savannahs and wetlands. Visitors come to camp, hike, bird-watch, bike and fish.
Other, more hardy individuals prefer spending their time deep in the interior of two designated wilderness areas within the forest, far removed from the drone of traffic or the buzz of a crowded mall.
The 24,602-acre Bradwell Bay and the 8,018-acre Mud Swamp/New River are islands of solitude, quiet and serenity.
“These wilderness areas offer special opportunities for enjoying solitude or a primitive, unconfined recreational experience,” according to the Wakulla County Tourist Development Council’s Web page. “No developed recreation facilities are found within these wildernesses. There are few, if any, signs to guide you . . . In these pristine areas, remember to please practice the no-trace ethic – tread lightly and remember: If you pack it in, pack it out!”
To the south and west of the Apalachicola National Forest is Tate’s Hell State Forest, the wilderness jewel of the Forgotten Coast. The 185,000-acre tract covers most of Franklin County and part of nearby Liberty County. The wilderness magnet draws thousands of visitors who come to see and marvel at its unique stands of dwarf cypress trees more than 150 years old and yet no more than 15 feet tall.
Legend has it that around 1875, a frontiersman seeking revenge against a marauding panther entered the wild and mysterious swamp armed with his rifle and accompanied by a pack of hunting dogs.
He soon became lost and stumbled through the wilderness maze for seven days and seven nights. He finally emerged near Carrabelle. The gaunt and ragged figure hailed the first people he saw, shouting:
“My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from hell!”
Times have changed, and Mr. Tate’s hell is regarded as heaven by thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the area’s unique wilderness beauty. The forest is a popular spot for those who enjoy hunting, fishing, picnicking, canoeing, boating, camping or bird-watching.
“The natural resources found on Tate’s Hell State Forest are very diverse due to the unique and various natural community types,” states the Florida Division of Forestry’s Web site. “Currently, the forest contains approximately 107,300 acres of hydric communities such as prairie, wet flatwoods, strand swamp, bottomland, baygall and flood plain swamp.”
The environmental integrity of Tate’s Hell had been seriously degraded through the years by poorly conceived timber harvesting practices conducted from the early 1950s through the early 1990s. However, the state began to purchase the surviving remnants in 1994 and gradually has enlarged the area while mounting a major restoration effort.
Another protected wilderness area found along the Forgotten Coast is the 4,219-acre Wakulla State Forest, located in Wakulla and southern Leon counties. Visitors may enjoy the beauty of upland hardwood forest, upland mixed forest, sandhill, hydric hammock, floodplain swamp, basin swamp, dome swamp and depression marsh. The area also includes a 2,500-acre pine plantation.
Wakulla is believed to be a Timucuan Indian word meaning “spring of water” or “mysterious water.” Wakulla Springs, with its 1930s-era lodge and popular wildlife-watching boat excursions, is one of the area’s top attractions.
The wildlife-rich refuge was the locale for several of Johnny Weismuller’s 1930s Tarzan movies and also was featured in the 1950s science-fiction cult classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Another large chunk of the Forgotten Coast is preserved within the borders of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge,
established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. The refuge includes parts of Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties.
Protected within are varied and diverse habitats, including the longleaf pine-turkey oak sandhill community and scrubby flatwoods. Fox squirrels, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes are found in the longleaf community. The scrubby flatwoods are home to such colorful birds as the Eastern towhee and the yellow-breasted chat.
Most of the forested private land in the Forgotten Coast area is owned by the St. Joe Company. The company owns more than 800,000 acres in Northwest Florida, including an estimated 220,000 acres in Gulf County, 26,000 acres in Franklin County and 25,000 acres in Wakulla County.
In 1997, St. Joe shifted its emphasis from commercial tree harvesting to real estate sales and development. The company is actively developing a string of upscale communities, which it promises will bring economic prosperity to the region without adverse environmental effects.
St. Joe is a dynamic company, drawing many of its top executives from Walt Disney enterprises. Company officials insist that its ambitious development plans are anchored firmly in a philosophy of environmental stewardship and tout St. Joe’s various wildlife conservation projects as proof of that commitment.
Some environmentalists are skeptical and fear St. Joe’s development plans will detract from the Forgotten Coast’s natural beauty. This controversy was explored by local author June Wiaz and her coauthor, Kathryn Ziewitz, in the 2004 book “Green Empire: The St. Joe Company and the Remaking of Florida’s Panhandle.”