Four Priority Areas for the Protection of Eastern Coastal Plain Ecosystems

One of the most biologically diverse areas of North America is found in the southeastern coastal plain, centered in the Apalachicola region, sometimes known as the Florida panhandle.  Here the deciduous forests of the southern Appalachian mountains meet the extensive pine savannas and wetlands of the gulf coast. This area was likely a refuge for many species during the last ice age and still has tree species found nowhere else in the world, such as Florida nutmeg-yew (Torreya taxifolia). The Apalachicola region alone has 27 species of frogs, 42 species of snakes, and 10 species of turtles.

This map shows four priority areas east of the Mississippi River for protecting these ecosystems, including long leaf pine forests as well as swamps and deciduous forests.

These four areas all lie within the southern conifer forest ecoregion (NA0529) which extends over 236,600 square kilometers of southeastern North America.

More than 95 percent of the forests in this region are degraded or cleared, and there are few properly-protected core examples.

The southeastern coastal plain is a center of biological diversity in North America.

There is nothing equivalent to the 2,109 square kilometers of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example. Each of the four areas shown on this map has one important core protected area, along with associated or adjoining protected areas.

In each case, the core and adjoining areas should be managed as one ecological unit. All four areas have an urgent need for four actions: (1) land acquisition to link the core and adjoining lands in order to enlarge the protected area, (2) land acquisition to establish ecologically meaningful boundaries, (3) restoration of natural fire regimes (summer burns), and (4) phasing out commerical logging.

A – Eglin Airforce Base

The Eglin Air Force Base was called Choctawhatchee National Forest before it was converted to military use in 1940. North of Eglin lies Blackwater River State Park, and north of that lies Conecuh National Forest.

B – Apalachicola National Forest

Apalachicola National Forest is the biggest consolidated block of public land east of the Rocky Mountains according to Kane and Keeton (1993). Satellite sites include Tates Hell State Forest, Aucilla Wildlife Management Area and St Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

C – Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia protects an area of some 1,600 square kilometers of swamp of which more than 1,400 square kilometers are designated National Wilderness Area. Osceola National Forest, just south of the Okefenokee, adds some 810 square kilometers of swamp and flatwoods. This area probably has the smallest area of longleaf pine forest among the four, but it has the largest total area. The web site maintained by 1,000 Friends of Florida describes steps required to better link the Osceola forests to the Okefenokee.

D – De Soto National Forest

De Soto National Forest, the westernmost of the four areas, is probably the least well known of the four. It is fragmented into two separate parcels without ecologically meaningful boundaries. Land acquisition is vital to fill these gaps. It could be linked westward to the 243 square kilometer Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge and southward to the 77 square kilometer Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.

References and Links

Blaustein, R. J. 2009. Biodiversity hotspot: the Florida panhandle. Bioscience 58: 784-790.

1,000 Friends of Florida

Christensen, N. L. 1988. Vegetation of the southeastern coastal plain. pp. 317-363 In M. G. Barbour and W. D. Billings (eds.). North American Terrestrial Vegetation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Kane, S. and R. Keeton. 1993. Southern National Forests. Falcon Press Publishing, Helena and Billings, Montana. 

Keddy, P. A. 2009. Thinking big: A conservation vision for the southeastern coastal plain of North America. Southeastern Naturalist 8: 213-226.

Platt, W. J. 1999. Southeastern pine savannas. pp. 23-51. In R. C. Anderson, J. S. Fralish and J. M. Baskin (eds.). Savannas, Barrens and Rock Outcrop Communities of North America. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.