Walking through a wildlife underpass from Nokuse Plantation to Eglin Air Force base feels like traveling back in time.
On the one side is Nokuse: a 54,000-acre private conservation property and site of the largest private longleaf pine restoration project in the world. While there are eight million newly planted longleaf pine trees here, they are mere saplings (only ten years old), so it requires some knowledge and imagination to envision what this place will be like in a few more decades.
Entering Eglin Air Force Base to the west paints a different picture. It is like stepping 200 years into the past, or from the perspective of Nokuse, fast-forwarding 200 years into the future.
Elgin feels ancient. As the Florida Trail climbs out of creek bottom ravines to sandy rises, we are surrounded by the oldest trees we’ve encountered on our entire 1,000-mile Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition. It’s likely there are 300-year-old trees in sight. The Air Force Base is home to the last remaining old-growth longleaf pines in Florida. In the natural resources visitor center, there is a cross section from a 500-year-old tree found on Eglin.
Nationwide, more than 300 federally listed threatened or endangered species inhabit military lands and waters—more than are found throughout the entire national park system, which has nearly three times more land. In Kansas, the U.S. Army’s Fort Riley shelters the nation’s largest remaining native tallgrass prairie, habitat for imperiled grassland birds such as the dickcissel and Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows. In the southeast, more than a third of all remaining pairs of the critically endangered red-cockaded woodpecker are found on four military installations: Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia, and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Recovery efforts for the federally endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker have been so successful the Eglin Air Force Base is now exporting its birds to other protected pine forests throughout the southeast. Avon Park Air Force Range, which provides critical habitat for the Florida Wildlife Corridor in peninsular Florida, hosts a substantial woodpecker population that has also been helpful for repopulating suitable habitat in the region.
Our expedition entered Eglin from the northeast and followed the Florida Trail west for nearly 50 miles. The terrain climbed sand ridges and dropped into lush ravines, crossing dozens of clearwater creeks gathering rainfall from the surrounding hills. It was difficult to imagine we were exploring an active Air Force base aside from the occasional thunder of exploding bombs beneath blue skies. Thankfully the sound was far to our south. More than 250,000 acres of the base are open for public recreation and the wildlife habitat there is some of the best in the state.
Our team met with Air Force natural resource managers and learned about impressive erosion control measures that had been implemented across the base. The results were apparent in clear-running creeks and in the population recovery of a less obvious little fish.
The Okaloosa darter was added to the Endangered Species List in 1973, the legislation’s first year. Ninety-five percent of world’s Okaloosa darters survive within the boundaries of Eglin Air Force Base, where the Air Force has worked closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to restore health to creeks and streams. As a result, the Okaloosa darter has graduated from Endangered to Threatened. Resource managers hope that the population will continue to grow to the point the species can be delisted entirely in the near future.
Eglin is an important conservation and recovery site for several additional federally threatened and endangered species including the gulf sturgeon, reticulated flatwoods salamander, eastern indigo snake, piping plover, five species of sea turtles, and five species of freshwater mussels.
After three days hiking, we put our kayaks in the Shoal River and began paddling west toward the Yellow River, the waterway along Eglin’s northern boundary where biologists will begin gulf sturgeon research in the summer.
The foliage along the banks was transitioning from winter to spring, new green emerging from grey branches but the bright red samaras from the maple trees still hinting of cold nights. I had nestled among some low branches working to compose a photograph in warming afternoon light when a rush of wind and growling engines just about scared me out of my boat.
As I looked up, two tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey emerged above the treetops and arched down river and out of sight. These impressive metal birds symbolized not just national defense but natural defense, because the journey across Eglin has provided new insight into the rare habitats and biodiversity the military was also protecting.