Thousands of acres of protected land added to Blackwater River State Forest

Special to Gannett / USA TODAY NETWORK

MILTON — Various government organizations have banded together to protect 1,700 acres to further regional efforts to restore longleaf pine habitat and prevent incompatible land development that could interfere with the operations at Naval Air Station Whiting Field.

The Trust for Public Land, along with partners the U.S. Navy, the Florida Forest Service, Santa Rosa County Commission, U.S. Forest Service, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, announced the acquisition on July 26.

Blackwater River State Forest

This land protection acquisition follows another 1,786 contiguous acres conserved at the end of June by The Trust for Public Land and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a total of 3,490 acres. 

Longleaf pine forests are one of the most threatened and ecologically diverse ecosystems in the world. The added land will also provide visitors and residents of Santa Rosa County more opportunity for hiking, biking, hunting and kayaking. 

“The conservation of this landscape-level property bolsters private and public efforts to restore longleaf pine forest providing critical habitat to numerous federally and state protected plant and animal species, offers public access to incredible recreational opportunities, and supports our national defense operations at NAS Whiting Field,” said Doug Hattaway, senior project manager for The Trust for Public Land. “We are proud to continue to work with our national and local partners and creatively leverage funding and resources to further complementary uses.” 

Blackwater River State Forest

“The addition of nearly 3,500 acres to the Blackwater River State Forest will provide exciting new recreational opportunities to the public and create connectivity among conservation forest lands in the area, benefitting native plants and wildlife,” added Erin Albury, State Forester and Director of the Florida Forest Service. “This conservation success would not have been possible without the hard work of our many partners.”   

The Trust for Public Land is working to protect and restore the Florida longleaf pine forest and make NAS Whiting Field more resilient, having conserved almost 7,000 acres in the western Florida panhandle since 2016.  

“NAS Whiting Field enjoys an outstanding community-military partnership with the state of Florida, Santa Rosa County, and numerous stakeholders," said NAS Whiting Field Commanding Officer Capt. Paul Flores. "Through these partnerships we have been able to safeguard more than 10,000 acres to protect a mission that has a critical role in the DOD’s National Military Strategy. Our collaborative efforts are fundamental in encouraging compatible land development, conservation of public and private lands and base buffering initiatives.

“These additional, 1,700-plus acres are located underneath flight track training profiles and are located within a military airport influence area," he added. "The execution of this project complements our efforts to sustain military mission training and preserve the environment in perpetuity.” 

The Trust for Public Land acquired both tracts together and conveyed 1,790 acres to the State of Florida utilizing Florida Forever (state) funding and the 1,700 acres to Santa Rosa County utilizing Federal Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration and USFS Forest Legacy program funding. The property was then conveyed to the State of Florida. 

“The acquisition of this critical parcel is a testament to the importance of partnerships at the federal, state and level,” said DEP Interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton. “Not only will this project further the department’s mission of protecting water quality, it will also preserve a crucial ecosystem, as well as a buffer for military operations.” 

All of this property will be managed by the Florida Forest Service as additions to the Blackwater River State Forest. 

The Trust for Public Land creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Millions of people live near a Trust for Public Land park, garden, or natural area, and millions more visit these sites every year.

To support The Trust for Public Land and share why nature matters to you, visit www.tpl.org.