Long ago, before Florida’s Panhandle was ditched, drained, paved and primed for development, there existed a rich tapestry of bogs, dunes, lakes and forests alongside the Gulf of Mexico. Bulldozers all but wiped out the rare coastal habitat.
Pockets, though, remain. Pockets of pitcher plants and pine lilies; of seepage slopes and wet prairies; of wiregrass and sedges; and of butterflies and bees.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Florida State Parks will stitch these disparate, biodiverse communities back together. They’ve focused their collective attention on Deer Lake State Park in South Walton and plan to return the nearly 2,000-acre preserve to its long-lost splendor.
“The park service has a mission to restore Deer Lake to its pre-settlement, pre-European condition,” said Jeff Talbert, who’s managing the project for the botanical garden. “Our goal, ideally, is to restore an open wetland with herbaceous plants that mimic the habitat as it originally stood.”
Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve, just up County Highway 30A from Deer Lake, are the other state parks targeted by the conservation groups. All three contain a distinct ecological treasure: coastal dune lakes. Their banks are lined with southern magnolias, scrub oaks, golden asters, woody goldenrods and, once upon a time, rare and at-risk plants like sundews, white-fringed orchids, grass pinks and ladies tresses. Wildfires, a natural and healthy antidote to the suffocating spread of weeds and invasive plants, kept the unique coastal habitat intact.
Yet fire, deemed too dangerous or too smokey in a growing panhandle, was all but outlawed starting about 80 years ago. Titi, or leatherwood, trees filled the fire-free breach and crowded out the lovely plants below. The biologically rich, sandy wetland prairies disappeared. Their resurgence began about a decade ago.
Since 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has funneled a quarter-million dollars to Florida’s parks department to get rid of titi and restore habitat at Deer Lake, Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill. The agency’s coastal program also awarded the botanical garden $37,000 to pluck pitcher plant seeds, and others, from the parks, grow them in Atlanta and replant them in Deer Lake.
In 2015, the early restoration work at Deer Lake was leveraged to tap Deepwater Horizon oil spill money — more than $8 million — via the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. The key was to show the watery link between the imperiled Gulf and the coastal dune lakes.
“One really cool thing was how our partners highlighted the important connection between water quantity and water quality and how the water is cleansed while flowing downhill through the seepage slopes into the Gulf,” said Melody Ray-Culp, the service’s coastal program coordinator in the Panhandle.
The goal is to return 300 acres at Deer Lake to its pristine, pre-development condition. Then it’s on to Grayton Beach and, finally, Topsail Hill.
The botanical garden’s conservation and research department, which works across the Southeast and the Caribbean, will soon undertake a service-financed survey of the three parks in search of additional threatened or endangered plants.