Getting Back into the Woods at Nokuse Plantation by Bruce Ritchie

M.C. Davis says he spent the first half of his life trying get out of the woods and the second half of his life trying to get back into them.

Davis, 64, not only is back in the woods, but he also owns them — about 48,000 acres of pine forests, swamps and floodplain forests in Walton County. At his Nokuse Plantation (pronounced No-GOH-zee), he's not only restoring forests, he's building a 28,000-square foot educational center to teach area school children about natural sciences.

And he's doing most of it with his own money — though he now says he's nearly broke.

A self-proclaimed "nature nut," Davis said he had little concern for the environment until he heard biologists give a lecture on bears in Tampa in 1995. Already a millionaire from the buying and selling of companies, Davis turned his attention and wealth to restoring and protecting nature.

"You have to have a reason to wake up and compete in the morning," Davis said. "I just got tired of making money. I decided to recycle my work product and my life's work into nature."

A Model for Conservation

Conservationists and agency officials alike say Davis is playing a key role in the the Florida Panhandle's conservation. They say Nokuse, a Muskogee (or Creek) indian word for bear, is a model of conservation.

"I think this is a grand idea, a grand accomplishment," Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said during a 2008 visit to Nokose Plantation.

"People think you have to go to the tropical rainforest to see great diversity and extremely amazing life forms," Wilson continued. "You don't if you live around here."

Davis was featured in late 2008 in Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition. It's a 322-page coffee table book that describes the John D. Rockefeller, the Mellons and other historical figures in land conservation worldwide.

But Davis, who grew up poor in neighboring rural county, said he was surprised that he was featured even after the author and photographer visited him at Nokuse Plantation to work on the book.

"When you see the quality of our neighbors," Davis said, referring to the other icons of conservation, "it's really a humbling experience.

From Slash and Sand to Longleaf Pine

Davis said that beginning in 2002, he between $65 million and $70 million acquiring his land at Nokuse. Most of the land was purchased from two companies who had planted rows of pine trees for timber or paper.

He looked at buying land in the area because large tracts were available for purchase because scientists had identified the Florida Panhandle as one of six biological "hot spots" in the United States. 

Soon after buying his first 37,000 acres, Davis hired biologist Matt Aresco as his director and began restoring the property. While earning his Ph.D. from Florida State University, Aresco had created huge public support for his proposal to build a wildlife underpass for turtles on a highway crossing Lake Jackson north of Tallahassee.

At Nokuse, Aresco is in charge of cutting and burning. Sand pine forests are being clear-cut because they didn't occur there naturally. Slash pines are being thinned to 50 to 70 trees per acre.

About 5 million longleaf pine trees have been planted in both the slash and sand pine areas. Longleaf pine forests, home to threatened wildlife and rich biodiversity, have disappeared across much of the South.

Underbrush burning — called prescribed fire — is a key component in the restoration with about 8,000 acres being treated each year. Burning maintains the pine forest by knocking back hardwoods while encouraging the growth of wildflowers and grasses that provide food for wildlife.

Gopher Tortoise Resettlement

Nokuse Plantation also has brought in more than 2,000 gopher tortoises that were threatened by development elsewhere in Florida. Davis paid to have them dug out of burrows and hauled in a special air-conditioned trailer to Nokuse, where they were released.

There had been few gopher tortoises at Nokuse because of the densely forested tree farms provided little of the wiregrass and plant diversity that the tortoises need for food. The return of the tortoises helps rare pine snakes and a myriad of species that use the tortoise burrows.

"Planting wiregrass and replanting longleaf is all very good," Aresco said. "But it will never be fully restored without getting the keystone species back into the sandhills, which is the gopher tortoise."

Eventually Davis and Aresco hope to reintroduce endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, another keystone species that depends on mature pine forests to survive.

"Save a gopher tortoise, bury a developer," says the bumper sticker on the back of Aresco's red pickup truck.  He drives it on Nokuse's old dirt logging roads past newly thinned forests of skinny slash pines, some blackened by recent prescribed burns.

He pulls over and gets out out in a mature longleaf pine forest where gopher tortoises have been reintroduced. There are no tortoises to be seen but their burrows dot the landscape of pines widely spaced apart over clumps of tall wiregrass.

"A site like this is nearly perfect," he says, "It has the full diversity of groundcover plants, a perfect canopy and it's managed by fire."

The Business of Conservation and Restoration

Davis has been earning about $1 million a year from the sale of timber that was cut for restoration. But the forest thinning will be completed next year, while the cost of burning and controlling exotic species continues at about $1.5 million a year.

Davis recently asked the state to consider buying the development rights on a portion of his property — in the form of a conservation easement on 14,609 acres at Seven Runs Creek. He said he'll put whatever money the state pays him back into the cost of restoring and managing the property.

Environmental groups and Eglin Air Force Base support the purchase — enthusiastically.

Davis' property lies in the heart of the "Northwest Florida Greenway" where the state has targeted land for purchase to protect the base from encroaching development. Fewer homes mean fewer people to complain about noise from the fighters and bombers that zoom over the property during training exercises.

Conserving Nokuse's property "will help continue economic viability in northwest Florida," Bob Arnold, a technical adviser at Eglin Air Force Base, told the state Acquisition and Restoration Council during a public hearing in December.

Conservationists like the idea of maintaining protected land between Eglin Air Force Base and the Choctahatchee River. Eglin has threatened and endangered species among its thousands of acres of mature pine forests, and the state owns thousands of acres along the Choctahatchee River, where Auburn researchers in 2005 say they spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Environmentalists joined Eglin Air Force Base representatives in telling the state acquisition panel that it should support the conservation easement at Nokuse Plantation. The governor and Florida's elected Cabinet are expected to decide later this year whether to put the proposal on the state purchase list.

"The Florida Wildlife Federation cannot support a project more strongly than this one," said Preston Robertson, the group's general counsel. "This one has everything."

Connecting with Kids

But Davis says it actually doesn't have everything. He said Nokuse won't be complete until the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center — named for the Harvard professor — opens at Nokuse.

There will be an 166-seat auditorium along museum displays depicting longleaf pine ecology and a 16-foot indigo bunting looming over a 7-foot tall ant. The program will be integrated into the local school system's curriculum to meet state standards for science education, said Christina Scally, the center's director.

There will be classroom laboratories, a gopher tortoise pen, a see-through bee hive, museum displays of longleaf pine ecology with video presentations, and exhibits of live frogs and amphibians.

"Kids here are going to have a chance to touch a snake," Davis said. "They'll have a chance to sing. What better place than to be surrounded by all these conservation lands?"

Environmentalists share Davis' vision for helping children in the region connect with nature at Nokuse.

"Everybody in this room loves conservation," Robertson of the Florida Wildlife Federation said at the state panel's public hearing. "If the next generation doesn't care it's not going to matter. It is very important to get younger folks into the woods to take some vested ownership over the blessings we have here."

Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist, said higher-income people are looking to move to areas with conserved lands. Nokuse, he said. will provide an economic boost to the Panhandle while preserving its quality of life.

"It is a tremendous asset for a region like Northwest Florida to have this added to the resources," Wilson said. "They will not be destroyed. They will last the indefinite future."

Independent journalist Bruce Ritchie has covered Florida growth and environmental issues since 1993. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, he previously was a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, the Gainesville Sun, and the Florida Times-Union.

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