Staff picks: We share our favorite district lands

Every so often we ask district staff: Where is your favorite place on district lands? Land Manager Heather Venter from the district’s Bureau of Land Resources, gives us her answer.

Heather Venter and Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area

District Land Manager Heather Venter chose the district’s Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area in Clay County as her favorite district property. This scenic overlook is just one of the special features of the public property.

Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area will always put a smile on her face

When I was asked to write a column highlighting one of my properties, the choice was easy; Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area in Middleburg. Black Creek Ravines is my go-to place when it’s been an awful day and I find myself forgetting why I became a wildlife biologist.

Compared to many other district properties, Black Creek Ravines is a relatively small tract, a mere 964 acres. They say that the best things come in small packages and the adage holds true here.

There’s no place in Florida quite like Black Creek Ravines. Sure you’ll find creek shoreline, piney flatwoods, swamps and sandhills like in other parts of the state, but the highlight of the property is the ravine system that splinters across these natural communities. I marvel at nature’s patience when I consider how the ravines were created: Rain, unable to penetrate the clay beneath the soil, forces the water to move laterally across the landscape, creating natural erosion that begins as a small gully and over time grows into a large ravine. The largest ravine here is nearly a mile in length and almost 95 feet deep!

The biologist in me is fascinated by two processes that determine the type of vegetation and wildlife found here: the depth to the water table and the frequency of fire. Longleaf pines are lightning rods on the hills, transmitting fire to the grassy underbrush beneath the pines. When fire was able to travel across the landscape unimpeded by roads and fire lines, the flames would have swept across the grassy sandhills and crept down into the ravines until they were snuffed out by the moisture at the bottom. These frequent, low-intensity fires kept the ravines from becoming too shrubby and thereby promoted the vegetative biodiversity these areas are known for. Although this process exists elsewhere, it is more distinctive at Black Creek Ravines due to its dramatic elevation changes. These open ecotonal areas — the area between two distinct ecosystems — are why Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area is home to so many rare plant species. Species include green-fly orchids, Catesby’s lily, hooded pitcher plants, Bartram’s Ixia and snakemouth orchids.

Black Creek Ravines may be a small piece of property, but through a bit of luck and careful management over the years, it retains its ecological integrity and is one of my favorite places in north Florida. If you ever find yourself hiking around Black Creek Ravines, be sure to walk to the overlook on the east side of the property. The view of the creek is spectacular, and don’t miss the ravine observation area on the west side of the property. It will give you a fantastic appreciation for the depth of the ravines. Both sites are short hikes from the parking lot and well worth the walk.

If, during your hike, you spy a woman gazing at the woods and smiling, please don’t think she’s strange;  I probably just needed to refresh my spirit and remind myself what our land management team has achieved and how it has been worth every tick and chigger bite and every long day in the field covered in ash and dirt, smelling like a burnt marshmallow.

Take a virtual tour of  Black Creek Ravines here.

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