Coordinated Flatwoods Restoration and Monitoring in the Eastern Florida Panhandle: Traditional Plots and Experimental Terrestrial Lidar Scans

Brian Pelc, Restoration Project Manager, The Nature Conservancy-Florida. Coordinator of the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance. Chad Anderson, Ecologist,

Florida Natural Areas Inventory Wet and Mesic Longleaf Pine Flatwoods (and structurally comparable longleaf ecosystems) play a critical role in maintaining the high biodiversity of southeastern forests. Previous flatwoods work has identified as many as 191 vascular plant taxa as well as >1500 plant species endemic to the North American Coastal Plain. This broad region of the southeastern continental United States is home to a gradient of native flatwoods habitats that once covered upwards of 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas. However, the vast majority of these native pine ecosystems were converted to off-site pine plantations and fire excluded in the last century, greatly reducing plant diversity and leaving land managers and biologists uncertain how best to implement and measure restoration efforts within a legacy of ecological mismanagement. Flatwoods restoration approaches in the last decade have resulted in very few successes, largely due to low survival of pine seedlings grown under an uncharacteristically dense and resilient shrub layer. To address this uncertainty and reverse the pattern of failed efforts, a partnership in the eastern portion of the Florida Panhandle is coordinating an effort to test various canopy conversion and fire re-introduction efforts on a meaningful scale and using a common monitoring protocol. The end goal will be a suite of clearing, site preparation, planting, maintenance and monitoring regimes that efficiently restore forest function and facilitate increased biodiversity over time. After identifying knowledge gaps for flatwoods longleaf pine establishment as a significant and high priority obstacle to large scale flatwoods restoration, the steering committee of the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance (ARSA)identified funds to 1) develop a monitoring protocol useful and comparable across the region and a variety of canopy thinning strategies and 2) install permanent plots in (at least) three partnership properties that span the east-west breadth of the partnership region (~ 100 miles.) Speakers will describe the baseline monitoring effort as well as plot level comparison between traditional vegetation monitoring data and data collected by terrestrial lidar scans. This project will require as much as decade to realize the full suite of tools for reconversion and associated impacts on flatwoods function and biodiversity. However, early successes can inform other projects and refine the suite of available tools.