WASHINGTON COUNTY - A turnout of state and local government leaders celebrated a milestone Jan. 19 as the Northwest Florida Water Management District planted its 15 millionth longleaf pine tree on public lands.

The planting ceremony took place within the Econfina Creek Water Management Area and featured Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein as well as county commissioners from Washington County and several other key stakeholders.

"Planting trees and restoring forests are something we take a lot of pride in here in northwest Florida," said George Roberts, chairman of the district's Governing Board. "We understand the significant role the longleaf pine habitat plays in protecting water resources for the residents in our district."

Once other plantings are completed this month, the district will have planted nearly 15.1 million longleaf pines since 1993. In that same 25-year period, the district has also planted an additional 1.6 million other trees, including cypress and other hardwoods, to bring the overall total tree plantings to nearly 17 million.

"It's an honor to join the district on Florida Arbor Day to celebrate 15 million longleaf pine trees," Valenstein said. "The department is committed to continuing to work with the district and our local partners to restore natural habitat and protect our state's prized properties in northwest Florida and statewide."

The district has also planted more than 6.6 million wiregrass tubelings, a key component to a healthy longleaf ecosystem.

The longleaf pine is a critical piece of northern Florida ecosystems. The tree's presence helps improve plant species diversity and provides wildlife habitat for animal and insect species. It also provides erosion control and natural fuel for effective prescribed burns.

Current funding for the planting project of 478,434 trees came largely from state support and through the district's timber sales and was complemented by an additional $54,612 from the Arbor Day Foundation and $15,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"The Arbor Day Foundation salutes the Northwest Florida Water Management District for their strong commitment to protecting and preserving Florida watersheds," said Brad Brandt, manager of Forest Operations for the Arbor Day Foundation. "Their commitment to tree planting serves as an example to others in the industry to the possibilities that tree plantings bring to their projects."

Through the years, the district has also received funding for other plantings from the Longleaf Stewardship Fund, a partnership between The Nature Conservancy in Florida, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Gulf Power and Southern Company, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Defense, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"The Northwest Florida Water Management District should be congratulated for reaching such a significant milestone in protecting water resources and restoring the longleaf ecosystem," said Vernon Compton, the Longleaf Alliance's director of the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership. "The LLA values the partnership we have with the District and admires the impressive restoration work that it has accomplished."