Many think that Walton County is an especially beautiful place, but when searching for facts about the wonders it holds, who better to share than a biologist. 

For that reason, the South Walton Community Council invited Dr. Bruce Means to present its Sept. 27 public forum on the topic “Walton County Biodiversity: The Wonderful World of Its Animals, Plants, and Ecosystems.”

“Walton County is part of a really important biodiversity hotspot that is the Florida Panhandle,” said the president and executive director of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, as well as an adjunct professor of biological science at Florida State University.

A biodiversity hotspot is an area rich in flora and fauna, which is threatened by human impact.

Means and others founded the Coastal Plains Institute in 1984 to study, conserve and increase awareness and appreciation of the rich biodiversity of the vast Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. He said what motivated him to start the organization was a desire continue his studies on the ecological quality of the Florida Panhandle after earning his Ph.D from FSU in 1975.

Means, an Alaskan native, fell in love with Northwest Florida ecology in 1960 when he enrolled as an undergraduate at FSU. He said he came for the studies and for better weather. 

“I got sick and tired of those long cold winter nights,” Means said with a laugh.

And Means has never left.

“I wound up getting my Ph.D on the ecology of the panhandle and have been based out of Tallahassee ever since,” he said.

His studies focus on the biological diversity of Northwest Florida, from sinkholes to coastal dune lakes to a wide variety of animal and plant species that together form these ecosystems.

Means will discuss how our county fits into the larger coastal plain, as well as how it stands out.

He stresses that it is more important than ever to understand what it is we have to protect, as well as the steps to take to ensure it is available for posterity.

“In 50 years, we’ve seen a lot of effects,” said Means. “The more people that settle in our area, the more who use the resources. We want to make sure we might have those natural treasures for the future.”

Means says conservation and protection is an issue that crosses county borders and is ever important in the larger biodiversity hotspot.

Protection of natural resources was an issue in neighboring Bay County, and Means recently testified as an expert witness during a trial to protect the county’s northern aquifers from large-scale water extraction.

“It just happened in Bay County. (The county) was trying to put in a well field and suck water out of aquifer,” said Means of a 20-year contract granted to Bay County to allow 30 million gallons of water to be pumped daily from the aquifers.

The contract was canceled, but the trial brings up the importance of diligence in protecting our fragile ecosystems.

“It could happen anywhere,” he said, and if we aren’t careful, “The public lands are the only place we’ll have our basic ecology left.”

Come hear this ecological expert speak free-of-charge at the South Walton Community Council’s forum Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Coastal Branch Library.

Means will also sign and discuss a book he co-authored, “Priceless Florida, Natural Ecosystems and Native Species.”