Habitat Restoration at ONP
ONP’s conservation program seeks to restore degraded agricultural lands back to sandhill (pre-1800’s era) habitat and preserve it in perpetuity. The Preserve property was purchased in the late 1990s with a Florida Communities Trust grant and was put into a conservation easement to ensure perpetual restoration and preservation. The property had been cleared of native vegetation in the 1800s for citrus and slash pine plantations. The monoculture and over-use of chemical fertilizers resulted in a land with severely reduced diversity. The property was purchased with the intent of restoring the uplands on the south shore of Lake Apopka, thereby increasing the health of the lake. A small group of volunteers secured funds to acquire the land and began the daunting task of restoration. Since restoration began at Oakland Nature Preserve, the native plants have begun to recover or have been planted, and the animals that need them are returning.
To date more than 20 acres of land have been restored to original sandhill habitat. Sandhill ecosystems represent one of the oldest types of native habitats in Florida, and are home to many rare, declining, and endemic species, including the federally endangered gopher tortoises.
The sandhill pine community, which is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems (Noss, 2012) in the U.S., has experienced extensive loss throughout its range, estimated to be almost 98% (Noss et al. 1995). Even so, today’s remnants are still some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems outside the tropics. Almost 900 endemic plant species are found in these systems, along with 30 of the 290 reptiles and amphibians occurring across the Southeastern U.S. More than 29 species associated with sandhill pine habitats are Federally-listed as threatened or endangered. From 1936 to 1995, Florida experienced a 90 percent decline in longleaf pinelands due to conversion to pine plantations, development, and agriculture (Kautz 1998).
Gopher tortoises, so named for digging and living in extensive burrows, are known as a “keystone” or umbrella species. Their burrows provide refuge to more than 350 commensal species including burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes, opossums, rabbits, gopher frogs, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and gopher crickets. Similar to the role of a keystone in an arch, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed. Gopher tortoises are an indicator of the general health of the ecosystem, their presence (and abundance) gives an insight into the surrounding habitat. These elusive reptiles prefer to remain hidden, spending most of their time underground in their burrows, so burrow counts offer data to estimate abundance.
Since the property was acquired and restoration activities begun, the number of gopher tortoises onsite has increased. It is anticipated that, as restoration efforts are intensified, the property will provide additional habitat for the gopher tortoise and the tortoise population will increase by at least 20%, as seen in other restoration areas at the Preserve. In restored areas of the Preserve, a dramatic increase in the abundance and diversity of native birds, snakes, other reptiles, and mammals has also been recorded. This increase in diversity is due to ongoing intensified restoration activities, including controlled burns, removal of nuisance and exotic plants, oak canopy thinning, and planting of native plants.
Please see the Forest Stewardship Plan for detailed information.