Why we love district lands

District lands offer land manager ‘sense of place’

District Land Manager Nels Parson

Selecting which district conservation area is my favorite is a tall order when considering the district has more than 40 to choose from. For me, this consideration comes from the perspective that my position is one of the handful of district staff who have had the opportunity to visit and work on most of the properties the district has acquired over more than a quarter of a century.

I have waded through Fort Drum Creek that flows into the district’s southernmost property of Fort Drum Marsh, the headwaters of the St. Johns River, and have stood at the sandbar point at Hugenot Park where the St. Johns River ends its journey into the Atlantic. There are many great district conservation areas in between.

A few that immediately come to mind include the expanse of flatwoods and open prairie at Hal Scott Preserve in Orange County or looking out over the restored marshes from Lake Apopka to Ocklawaha Prairie. There are the forested conservation areas from Lake George in Volusia County over to Newnans Lake in Alachua County.

There is also Rice Creek Conservation Area where a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail that traverses an historic levee built for an 18th century rice plantation that allows one to walk into the heart of the swamp to view the seventh largest cypress tree in the state. Lastly, there are the views either looking down into ravines nearly 40 feet deep at Black Creek Ravines in the sandhill region of Clay County, or the vista from the bluff at Moses Creek just south of St. Augustine looking over the last undeveloped tidal basin on the east coast of Florida.

The district has a remarkable collection of acquisitions, and a great sampling of what natural Florida offers. My personal favorite is at the northernmost reaches of district jurisdiction, up on the St. Marys River along the Georgia border. Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest is a property named after a former district governing board member who was instrumental in its acquisition and is a district “partnership property” that the district purchased but is cooperatively managed with the Florida Forest Service, which is geographically better situated to manage that tract. This is the northernmost piece of Florida in the eastern time zone.

This rural parcel of less than 4,000 acres, small by comparison to many other district areas, offers many of the various natural communities other conservation areas have in this one property. It has topography and relief of more than 60 feet in elevation, sandhills with longleaf pine/wiregrass communities, seepage slopes with pitcher plants, bays, bottom land forests and floodplain swamps with tupelos reminding one they are in the extreme northern reaches of Florida. Fall foliage colors mimic those found in the southern Appalachians. The forest trail system routes through the various natural communities for trail users to experience the variety of these areas. Several trail locations come out at white sand bars along the St. Marys River indicative of the outflow from the Okeefenokee Swamp. The white sand contrasts dramatically with the dark tannin waters.

This is my piece of Florida, or as Florida author Bill Belleville references personal connections to natural areas, “my sense of place.”

Ralph E. Simmons Memorial state Forest

This article was written by district Land Manager Nels Parson (Bureau of Land Resources) and originally featured as part of a series in August 2018 focused on the work of district land managers.