It was never designated as the Florida National Scenic Trail since it was on private timberlands, but it was under an agreement between the landowners and the Florida Trail Association to be the corridor of the Florida Trail for 32 years. First known as the Gilman/Buckeye and St. Regis sections, and later as Foley/Wachovia, the Florida Trail corridor across the Big Bend between the Suwannee and Aucilla rivers was touted as a first for FTA to negotiate such a lengthy segment of the Florida Trail – more than 60 miles – through private land.
Building Timber Company Relationships
Starting in 1970, the Florida Trail Association began forging relationships with Florida’s timber companies. It helped tremendously that the first one on board was Selmer Uhr, an executive at Hudson Pulp and Paper Corporation. The company owned the timberlands surrounding Rice Creek and Etoniah Creek, and Selmer was well aware of the value of preserving the Rice Creek basin. He convinced the company to throw their support behind the Florida Trail, in part thanks to the efforts of Al Stone, a retired engineer from DuPont. Al had routed segments of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania before retiring to Florida. Joining the FTA Board of Directors, Al brought a skill set that the organization sorely needed to move forward. With maps and photographs of potential trail corridor, he worked with land managers to hold meetings with local civic groups to drum up support. This diplomatic approach brought in new volunteers and new respect for the ever-growing trail. Sending out missives on Georgia-Pacific stationery didn’t hurt, either, since private timberlands were such important landholders.
According to the Florida Forestry Association, 15.4 million acres of Florida’s 17.3 million acres of forests are in working timberlands (pine plantations), with 71% of that land in private ownership. Most counties in North Florida are at least 50% forested. In Florida, timber is still a $16.1 billion dollar industry.
With 89% of Florida’s forests in private hands – and it was far more back in the 1960s, before state forests, WMAs, and water management lands existed – it made perfect sense for the Florida Trail Association to grow good relationships with timber companies. As seen from 1970s maps of the Rice Creek, Gold Head, and Olustee sections, the trail initally traversed private timberlands between the Ocala National Forest and Gold Head Branch State Park, and between Camp Blanding and the Osceola National Forest. These successful partnerships enabled the Florida Trail Association to build its first and strongest continuous route through North Florida, linking the initial segments of the trail in the Ocala National Forest and the Suwannee River.
Connecting the Big Bend
“At the Florida Forestry Festival, FTA gave official, public recognition to several timber industry companies whose land the FT crosses; met informally several high level elected and government agency officials who are important to our trails; and became more visible in North Florida where we will begin extending the FT across the Panhandle.” – excerpt from Letter from the President, January 1985 Footprint, Jim Kern
As the Florida Trail Association routed and built the Florida Trail between 1966 and 1983, the organization had full control of where to place the trail, and full ownership of the process of making it happen. It was up to FTA to reach out to landowners, both public and private, craft agreements to allow passage across those lands, and to ensure those agreements were upheld by both parties.
Once National Scenic Trail status was established in 1983, the dynamic changed. As the newly appointed land manager, the U.S. Forest Service entered the mix. For the first two decades in their role, they relied heavily on the Florida Trail Association, the founders and creators of the trail, to guide them towards what was best to complete the Florida Trail. Around the time of National Scenic Trail designation FTA started a big push to bridge the gap through between the Suwannee and Apalachicola sections. Trail was already on the ground in the Apalachicola National Forest and west of the Wacissa River. The Wacissa section would end up shifting south into St. Marks.
As VP of Trails, Ernie Baldini worked with section leaders Gil Nelson and Dale Allen to route the Florida Trail through the extensive private timberlands of the Big Bend. Getting paper company executives in that region actively involved in the Florida Trail Association was an important step. Boyd Close, an executive with Buckeye Cellulose Corporation in Perry, became an integral part of this plan. In 1983, he obtained permission for the Florida Trail Association to build a new trail along the Aucilla River and Sinks, which the company then owned; it was not purchased by Suwannee River Water Management District until the early 1990s.
While the footpath was built in time for the Apalachee Chapter to hold two outings on it the weekend of March 24, 1984 – 18 years to the day from when FTA held its first board meeting – it wasn’t announced as open to general membership until the fall. Section leaders Steve Stolting and Bob Pruyn took over ongoing care of Section 21 (Aucilla River) and Section 22 (Aucilla Sinks).
That same month, the Florida National Scenic Trail Advisory Council was established. Now that the Florida Trail was a National Scenic Trail, this advisory board was mandated by the National Trails Act. It was their job to come up with a Comprehensive Plan for managing the Florida Trail. This advisory board was made up of one-third FTA members, one-third representatives of state and federal agencies, and one-third private landowners and citizens, and remained in existence for ten years.
“The timber industry reps on the National Scenic Trail Advisory Council were really good. They were oriented towards the goal,” said Ernie Baldini. He served on the Council at its inception. “This is all about relationships.”
Wrote Dale Allen in the September 1984 Footprint, “Thanks to the corporate goodwill of the Buckeye Cellulose Corporation, the timely assistance of experienced trail builders during last year’s all association work weekend, and the dedicated – if not fanatical – efforts of the Apalachee Chapter, a new section of the Florida Trail is now available for hiking by trail members and the general public. The Aucilla Trail is a unique section of the Florida Trail because of the curious fate of the Aucilla River…” and he goes on to explain exactly why. “The Aucilla Trail follows the river berm for about seven miles, then, as the river disappears underground, the trail weaves along some of the numerous sinks for another three miles. Buckeye Cellulose has left an extensive buffer around most of these sinks and a narrower buffer along most of the river. In these areas the forest is diverse and the topography fascinating.”
At the same time, permission was also granted to extend the Florida Trail through the working timberlands across the gap to the Suwannee River. Ernie Baldini headed up an all-association work hike that got the job done in time for the annual Florida Forestry Festival in Perry that October. With volunteers camped out at Boyd Close’s home on 40 acres, members of the Apalachee, Florida Cracker, and Panhandler chapters showed up in force to represent FTA at the Forestry Festival parade on October 28, 1984.
According to Elizabeth Van Mierop, who wrote a recap in the January 1985 Footprint, “The weekend of October 26, Perry was bursting at the seams with all the impact of a homecoming in Gainesville … the Florida Forestry Festival was drawing to a climax; a quiet town of 17,000 was suddently a town of 67,000 – and it was alive! The grand finale was set, the Big Parade was Sunday. And the Florida Trail Association was there!
Our float … proudly carried George Wysock’s tent, Carter Boydstun’s kayak, a pseudocampfire, a generous carpet of prime Tallahassee pinestraw, palmettos and oaks, and the crowning touch: Dick Beck bicycling on a treadmill and covering 12 miles in a two mile parade! It was flanked by FTA hikers, all having a great time waving to the crowd and enjoying the October sunshine.”
The very next day, Dale Allen presided over a Silver Blaze Ceremony at the Vortex along the Aucilla River section. A silver blaze was painted on a very large tree, commemorating the important linkage between the Suwannee and Aucilla Rivers. Now, the Florida Trail was a continuous arc of completed trail from Clearwater Lake in the Ocala National Forest to Porter Lake in the Apalachicola National Forest, at least for card-carrying members of the Florida Trail Association. By April 1985, “portions of the Buckeye Cellulose property” opened to the public as well.
Hking the Timberlands
No one will claim the timberlands of the Big Bend as their favorite section of the Florida Trail. In fact, it was a section mainly traversed by section hikers and thru-hikers seeking to complete the Florida Trail. The orange blazes zigzagged down forest roads through vast stands of corporate-owned pine forests, actively timbered and leased out to hunting clubs. Thru-hiker Mary “Denali” McKinley was one of the last hikers to cross this section, and described it as “a fascinating place to hike,” especially for the beauty of the Econfina River basin and being able to watch the process of timber harvesting.
Despite the monoculture in many places, wildlife was abundant. “Along Camp Road in a ditch, turtles plopped off logs into the water,” wrote Rick Guhse in his 1999 hike journal. “I saw a rabbit and many squirrels in the forest, and spooked two quail coveys…Saw sandhill cranes flying in two large V-formations. Saw a flock of ibis…I spotted a nine foot alligator lying in the water next to a cypress tree.” On her hike in 1997, Joan Hobson noted “We walked up Pine Lake Road and saw three otters playing in the road … Some of the sand roads in Foley are more shaded and are less traveled so the ‘trail’ looks a little more natural.”
In early 2015, we hiked some of the more accessible portions of this section to see what it was all about, and it was all about timber production. The sand roads led you through stands of planted pines and nudged along the edges of blackwater swamps. Imagine a vast landscape in North Florida of hilly longleaf pine forests growing up to the edge of lowland swamps, and that’s what it once was, before trees were planted in rows. The Econfina River, which rises in San Pedro Bay, a massive swamp south of Madison, and flows towards the Gulf of Mexico, is a central feature of the region, providing a ribbon of very wet natural habitats through the pine plantations.
The Gap Reopens
Over the past two years, we’ve asked for official comment as to why the gap reopened. We still don’t know why. What we do know: in 2015, Foley Timber & Land Company made national headlines by putting a half million acres of their timberlands, including all of the route of the Florida Trail, on the real estate market.
just as we were prepared to go to press with the second edition of The Florida Trail Guide in August 2015, we received word that the Florida Trail had been permanently closed through the Wachovia/Foley timberlands. This left thru-hikers and section hikers in a bind. Where would they go?
An initial FTA Notice to Hikers showed a roadwalk route that we questioned, mainly because hikers would need both designated camping at either end of the gap and services in between. We suggested another route. The finalized, blazed route blended some of those suggestions in, and stretches 48.4 miles through rural Madison and Taylor Counties.
We drove the roadwalk route in August 2015 to look for water sources and potential camping spots. Bill Walker has developed a nice primitive campsite on public land in Middle Aucilla WMA, east of the Aucilla River, and pricey camping (hotels are a better option for two people) is available at Madison. In between, some churches have welcomed hikers on their properties.
Map of the current trail route
All of the route is a roadwalk, with most of it on rural roads with limited traffic. Some of the roads are dirt roads. The busiest road along this roadwalk section is SR 53, connecting Madison with Mayo.
In December 2015, the Foley property – “believed to be the largest contiguous piece of undeveloped property in private hands east of the Mississippi River,” according to the Perry News-Herald – sold in its entirety for $710 million dollars. The parcel “includes more than half of all the land in Taylor County.” About the same time, the assets of Foley Land and Timber were renamed Four Rivers Land and Timber.
It wasn’t until early this year that the mystery buyer was finally identified, thanks to an article in Florida Trend which the Perry News-Herald quoted. “A billionaire businessman, who escaped as a young man to the United States from communist-ruled Hungary, has been named as the owner of more than 500,000 acres in Taylor and surrounding counties…Thomas Peterffy, 72, who recently moved to Palm Beach from Greenwich, Connecticut.”
Closing the Suwannee-Aucilla Gap
A new proposal, “Corridor Location Review: Twin Rivers State Forest to Aucilla River Gap,” is on the table. This past month it was shared by the U.S. Forest Service and FTA to FTA members for feedback. However, the plan has been in the works for some time. After we first saw a presentation on it, we visited the Forest Service to explain why the preferred route put forth in the plan is not a good idea. That route, called Alternative C, is touted rather extensively throughout the plan as to lead readers to believe it’s the only option. Certainly, versus Alternative A – the current roadwalk – and Alternative B – a proposal to slap the Florida Trail atop a paved trail paralleling US 98 – it would seem so. We disagree. Among the many problems we’ve shared with both FTA and the U.S. Forest Service concerning Alternative C include:
- Adding 83 new miles of trail to build for a net gain of 16 less miles of roadwalk
- Lack of active volunteers in the region for trail building and maintenance
- Sparse population from which to draw volunteers
- Routing much of the trail on named roads, not footpath, because of coastal swamps
- Following a coastline where finding fresh water is already an issue at St. Marks
- Placing the trail in the high hazard zone for coastal flooding
- Choosing lands where hunters are not used to other recreational users being present
- Extremely long distances between services for backpackers
- Not including a long distance hiker in the review team for the route
What especially upset us about Alternative C, however, was it would entirely drop the Aucilla River and Aucilla Sinks sections from the Florida Trail. We consider that part of the Florida Trail one of the top destinations on any National Scenic Trail nationwide due to the unique geology and its national archaeological significance. Digs began there in 1902, uncovering such treasures as carved ivory mastodon tusks (the oldest known artwork in America); the floor of a 10,000-year-old Paleoindian residence, completed with carved wood and three hearths; and proof that humans and mastodons co-existed along the Aucilla, carbon-dated to 14,500 years ago. The Aucilla is now considered the earliest known site of human occupation in the southeastern United States. Removing National Scenic Trail designation from the primary access to this area is not in Florida’s best interests.
As we read through the U.S. Forest Service proposal, we noticed one critical thing missing: any consideration of the original route of the Florida Trail through the region, used by hikers for 32 years. In fact, it’s dismissed at the beginning of the document as “no longer a viable alternative.” We’d like to formally challenge that statement, and offer a meaningful solution.
Four Rivers Land and Timber is a new company with a new owner. Georgia Pacific also owns some of the timberlands which the Florida Trail once passed through, and has a long tradition of working with all recreation users – including hikers – to lease access to their private timberlands nationwide.
What is needed? A Big Bend Greenway. And in fact, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Northwest Florida Wildlife Habitat Network have been working towards that goal. If you take a look at their map, you’ll see it includes the diagonal corridor that the Florida Trail followed through the Big Bend timberlands. Critical parcels for purchase are identified in their maps.
West of the Apalachicola River, the Northwest Florida Greenway Project was established nearly two decades ago for several purposes, one of which was habitat restoration from pine plantations to longleaf pine forests along a massive swath of landscape. With the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Trail Association as partners in the project, it has greatly benefited completion the route of the Florida Trail through that region. A conservation easement was purchased by the Forest Service from M.C. Davis across Nokuse Plantation, ensuring permanent future access for the Florida Trail through private conservation lands. The same could be done in the Big Bend, in conjunction with the Northwest Florida Wildlife Habitat Network project.
There are two important things this part of Big Bend is sorely lacking: public land and natural habitats. Purchasing, protecting, and restoring natural habitats along a greenway that’s at least a mile wide, stretching from the Suwannee to the Aucilla River, would both benefit Florida’s wildlife and provide a permanent route for our National Scenic Trail. Both the US Forest Service and the Florida Trail Association should join in partnership with other organizations with similar goals to protect, restore, and preserve a natural corridor through this region for the future.
What Can You Do?
1. Learn more about the Northwest Florida Wildlife Habitat Network
2. Download and read the U.S. Forest Service proposal for the Big Bend
3. Share your opinion on this issue in a survey from the Florida Trail Association
4. Share your opinion with the U.S. Forest Service, National Forests in Florida, the federal managers of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
IMPORTANT: The Florida Trail Association is only accepting responses to their survey through May 5.