Both of the sites LEAFS is restoring have been much altered. In the time since this section of Florida was settled in the mid-1800s, they have been used in a variety of ways including turpentine operations and cattle grazing. The “old growth” longleaf pines were cut for timber many years ago. Those few longleafs growing on the sites today are second or third growth. Still, both sites have some interesting natural features.
The CR 1471 Site
Visitors approaching from U.S. 301 drive for about a half-mile along the western edge of this site and come to the small parking area where the interpretive trail begins. Walking down the first few feet of the trail, it is not difficult to find evidence of human activity. Mounds of dirt mark a spot in one corner of the site scraped clear by a bulldozer for a commercial greenhouse. Farther along the trail, the visitor passes some of the numerous tracks crisscrossing the site left by logging operations and old firelines. Only a few full-sized longleaf pines remain and these have “cat face” scars on their bark from cuts made to collect sap for turpentine production. The site is surrounded today by homes and farms.
In spite of all this activity, many young longleaf pines and much of the native understory have persisted. In openings in the thick gallberry and saw palmetto, one can find grass stage longleaf seedlings.
Most of these have been planted, but some are from natural regeneration where there are cone-producing longleafs nearby. Many have come out of the grass stage and are beginning height growth.
To a large extent, water determines the precise mix of plant species on the site. Since it is relatively level—as is characteristic of a “pine flatwoods” site—the difference of a few feet (or even inches) can determine the stormwater drainage. Although the casual observer might not notice it, the western portion of the site where the interpretive trails begins is higher than any of the surrounding land and is what might be termed a “mini-continental divide.” Water draining to the east flows to the Suwannee River and then to the Gulf of Mexico, while water draining to the south flows to the St. Johns River and, ultimately, to the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the soil here is sandy, it is underlain by a layer of clay which prevents rapid drainage. As a result, most of this site can be quite wet. After heavy rains, there are some low spots where there can be standing water for weeks. These ephemeral pools are very important to wildlife, particularly amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders). The ground cover vegetation in these low spots is often Virginia chain ferns and differs substantially from that found only yards away, but on ground inches higher. These wet areas resist all but the hottest fires.
Until LEAFS commenced prescribed burning, there had been no fire on the site for over 20 years. As a result, other pine species -- such as loblolly and slash pine -- and hardwoods -- such as oaks -- became established. Even with periodic fires, many slash pines are still found on the site, particularly in the wetter portions on the eastern edge. This is natural, as slash pines and longleaf pines often share wet sites. Indeed, the botanical name of longleaf pine -- pinus palustris -- literally means “the pine that lives in marshy places.” In general, however, slash pines are more typical than longleafs of wet places. Although fire has now been returned to the site, the older invading slash pines likely will persist until harvested.
Many of the plants and some of the animals typically found in a longleaf community are present on the site. Unfortunately, it is probably not large enough to support viable populations of all endemic longleaf animal species, such as fox squirrels and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The Lake Alto Park Site
This site is located approximately a mile away to the north on CR 1471, adjacent to Lake Alto Park. The visitor here walks from the park’s parking area and boat ramp to the start of the LEAFS interpretive trail. In the park, all the native understory has been removed, but there are many large longleaf pines remaining. Many of these trees could well be approaching the 50-year mark, and in another 50 years will look very much like the old growth trees which once grew here.
Entering the LEAFS site, the visitor will notice a difference in the ground cover. Unlike the mowed grass of the park, here the ground cover is a thick jumble of tall grasses, bracken fern, vines, and shrubs. Unless there was recently a prescribed fire, foot travel anywhere except on the footpath would be difficult. But here the understory is unlike that of the other LEAFS site, with its thick gallberry and saw palmetto. And except for the young longleaf pines in various growth stages, which were planted by LEAFS, there are virtually no large trees. Both of these factors, together with the discovery of some old cow bones, indicate that much of this site was once cleared for pasture. Again, unlike the other site where there is some natural regeneration of longleafs, here restoration of the longleaf ecosystem is more extensive.
One edge of this site lies along the shore of Lake Alto, and here there are many wetland trees, such as cypress, gum or tupelo, and sweet bay.
Neither the prescribed fires conducted by LEAFS nor the lightning-caused fires of pre-settlement times would travel far into the vegetation growing near the lakeshore. The site extends from the edge of the lake for nearly a third of a mile back to CR 1471, gradually sloping upwards for an elevation change of over 15 feet. As a result, the upper portions of the site drain well and are generally drier. A few gopher tortoises, a typical sandhills inhabitant of the longleaf ecosystem, can be found here.
On the portion of the site next to CR 1471 are two man-made features. One is a drainage retention pond constructed by Alachua County. Surrounded by a thick growth of slash pines, it is often used as a resting spot by a small flock of wood ducks. Nearby, a former owner planted about 20 acres of the site as a slash pine plantation. As the trees on these portions mature, they will be harvested. Then restoration with longleafs will commence.