FREEPORT — The state of Florida is considering two land purchases that would “fill in gaps” within Walton County’s Nokuse Plantation conservation area and further the dream of its founder, M.C. Davis, to establish a long leaf pine forest extending “as far as the eye can see.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet will consider proposals at their Tuesday meeting to purchase conservation easements in Walton and Putnam counties.
In Walton County, two deals are being considered that would add just under 2,600 acres to what is known as the Seven Runs Creek Final Phase Florida Forever project. The total price for the state to obtain the two parcels is approximately $2.7 million, according to the Cabinet agenda.
The first easement, of 2,436 acres, would be turned over to Nokuse Education Inc. and the second, of 2,133 acres, would be managed by the Stella Davis 2015 Plantation Trust. Stella Davis was the wife of M.C. Davis.
Matt Aresco, the director of Nokuse Plantation, said both easements would be contained within the plantation and run along Black Creek, which he described as a “just beautiful creek” that drains into the Choctawhatchee River.
“This is a beautiful creek system that features very old trees and provides habitat to black bears and a whole lot of other species,” Aresco said.
One other prominent species offered protection by the conservation easements is the gopher tortoise, Aresco said.
Another portion of the easement property features a sand hill ecosystem providing wetlands habitat for ducks and other birds, he said, and wetlands on the tract should provide important groundwater recharge.
An important feature of the conservation easements is their service in tying the Nokuse Plantation to the Eglin Air Force Base reservation and Blackwater River State Park to the west and Choctawhatchee Wildlife Management Area to the east to create a contiguous forest area, Aresco said.
Likewise, the conservation easements “will enhance the Eglin AFB mission by providing undeveloped buffer land under Special Use Airspace for level aircraft training,” he said.
Dr. Richard Hilsenbeck, a Nature Conservancy retiree, said if the easements proposed at Nokuse by the state are anything like two others within the confines of the plantation recently approved by the Cabinet, "they will provide excellent protection to the natural and hydrological resources of the property."
"The land is also being ecologically restored through a multi-level plan that includes replanting of long leaf pine and reintroduction of prescribed fire on the upland portions of the property," Hilsenbeck said. "I strongly support the purchase of these conservation easements by the state."
Nokuse Plantation itself will grow to over 55,000 acres with the addition of the two parcels. The plantation’s website states that close to six million long leaf pine seedlings have been planted on the grounds.
Long leaf pine forests once dominated the landscape of much of the southeastern United States, but the vast acreage was decimated by loggers who found the wood of the long leaf ideal for construction purposes.
Conservation easements are designed to protect land while at the same time allowing private property owners to retain their rights and live on and use the grounds.
“The conservation easement will permanently limit development, while allowing the landowner to harvest timber," the Cabinet agenda said in describing the easement proposed for the non-profit Nokuse Education Inc.
Nokuse Plantation maintains its E.O. Wilson Biophelia Center, a non-profit environmental educational center, on property just south of State Highway 20 near Bruce.