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Good management ensures beauty of St. George Island State Park

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Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park was recently named one of America’s most beautiful beaches by Dr. Beach (www.drbeach.org) - a wonderful tribute and recognition of the natural beauty of Franklin County. It doesn’t stay so beautiful without help though; the recognition is a tribute to Park Manager Josh Hodson and his staff and volunteers.

A few months ago, I was invited to represent the Sarracenia Chapter of the Florida Nature Plant Society during a review of the park’s Unit Management Plan, which every Florida state park must have, with goals and metrics to evaluate progress toward implementing them. Plans are rewritten every 10 years, and reviewed every five years, by a panel of state agency staff, local officials, and citizens from conservation groups. We reviewed the current Plan, written in 2015, before touring the park to see how it is being implemented and to provide comments and concerns, if needed.

We learned the park averages over 250,000 visitors a year, with nine miles of white sandy beach on its Gulf shoreline and 12 miles of estuary shoreline. All Florida state parks combined have only 100 miles of coastal beach.

Public outdoor recreation and conservation are the designated uses for the park. The mission of the Florida Park Service is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting, and restoring natural and cultural resources, and so the park conserves natural areas and sandy beaches to provide these opportunities.

That habitat, in the form of a mosaic of high-quality upland and wetland natural communities, is the hallmark of the park and its management plan. The park’s 2,000 acres contain nine distinct natural communities, based on definitions and descriptions from the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. Three are not vegetated – the Marine Unconsolidated Substrate (261 acres) and Estuarine Unconsolidated Substrate (78 acres), which are sand and shell beaches on the gulf side and bay side, respectively, and a Coastal Dune Lake (3 acres).

The six vegetated natural communities, identified based on topography and plants, are characterized in the plan as such:

Beach Dunes (573 acres), along the gulf shoreline, are dynamic, rearranged and relocated by wind and storms, as seen following Hurricane Michael. Typical species include dune forming grasses such as sea oats and beachgrass, along with railroad vine, golden aster, seaside goldenrod, sea rocket, sand-squares, beach groundcherry, and beach morning glory. Shrubs and trees are characteristic of older more established dunes. The area known as “Sugar Hill” is part of an old relict dune line that rises to 50 feet.

Landward of the dunes, Coastal Grasslands (249 acres) occur on wider parts of the park, marked by a few scattered trees and shrubs and dominated by grasses and wildflowers. Characteristic plant species, according to the plan, include Muhly grass, saltmeadow cordgrass, bluestem grasses, camphorweed, and greenbriar. Coastal grasslands and beach dunes are nesting habitat for Wilson’s plovers and American oystercatchers.

Wet Flatwoods (255 acres) are more upland habitats, where you can get your feet wet most of the year. Slash pine is the characteristic tree, with a groundcover of salt meadow cordgrass. Shrubs, which include wax myrtle, gallberry, fetterbush, yaupon holly, shiny blueberry, and saw palmetto, are generally knee to waist high or less. This is a favored resting site for neotropical migratory birds. The largest, contiguous areas of these flatwoods are on the Rattlesnake Cove and Gap Point peninsulas.

Scrubby Flatwoods (632 acres), dry, flat, well-drained uplands, may include ridges of ancient dunes. Slash pines are the dominant tree over a diverse shrubby understory, often with patches of bare white sand. A mixed-age, patchy scrub-type oak “canopy” varying in height from three to eight feet is characteristic. Common species include sand live oak, myrtle oak, and Chapman’s oak, along with dune rosemary.

The park’s Basin Marshes (21 acres) are ephemeral wetlands, holding rainwater only part of the year. Emergent herbaceous and low shrub species present an open vista. Dominant species include sawgrass, common reed, arrowheads, buttonbush, St. John’s wort, and coastal plain willow. Gap Point Peninsula has a linear array of patches of Basin Marsh.

Salt Marsh (171 acres), found in low-lying areas along the estuary shoreline, are described as “a largely herbaceous community that occurs in the portion of the coastal zone affected by tides and seawater and protected from large waves.” Salt Marsh plants tend to fall out visually into zones based on how areas are affected by tides. Cordgrass is found in areas closest to the tide line, while further towards shore, needle rush dominates. Characteristic broadleaf species include Carolina sea lavender, seaside goldenrod, saltwort, perennial glasswort, and seashore mallow. The shore may have a border of salt-tolerant shrubs including groundsel tree, saltwater falsewillow, marshelder, and Christmasberry.

The management plan states the importance of the Salt Marsh, noting “a vast assemblage of estuarine and marine species” depend on these marshes along St. George Island and the greater Apalachicola Bay as primary habitat during their life cycle. These include commercial and recreational species such as mullet, blue crabs, oysters, shrimp, redfish, and spotted seatrout.

Most of the park habitats are maintained by fire. Historically, lightning provided the source, but now land managers use prescribed burns to keep areas on a rotation that matches historical fire frequencies. Fire helps control invasive species and maintain habitat quality. Park staff have fine-tuned the optimal fire return frequency for park habitats.

The management plan addresses both imperiled species and invasive species which can cause economic or ecological damage to natural communities. The park has no documented invasive plants or animals, an amazing tribute to awareness and scouting by staff.

The park has no listed rare plants but is home to several imperiled animals, including high density nesting of loggerhead and green sea turtles. The plan states the park has the most diverse shorebird nesting of parks along the northwest Florida Gulf Coast. Species include southeastern snowy plover, Wilson’s plover, American oystercatcher, and black skimmer. Overwintering piping plovers are found in greater abundance at the park than anywhere else along this Gulf Coast. Redknots are found here in the fall and spring; egrets, herons, and raptors are present year-round. The plan includes measures to protect nesting, feeding, and loafing habitat, balancing visitor use with protection of sensitive habitats.

Hurricane Michael did extensive damage to staff residences and shop buildings, roads, and picnic pavilions in 2018. The road to the east end remains closed to vehicle traffic. Dunes near the day use area needed to be rebuilt by pushing sand back in position. The park typically utilizes a natural systems approach throughout the remainder of the park, allowing dunes to rebuild through the capture of sand by native dune vegetation such as sea oats, panic grass and other beach plants. This approach helps anchor dunes in place to reduce future erosion impacts. Recent improvements to infrastructure include a new fitness trail along part of Gap Point Trail near the campground, an astronomy pad for stargazing, and redone restrooms in the pavilions. Bike paths along the main road are planned.

Ongoing partnerships with researchers and land managers from the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve and Florida State University continue to inform adaptive management at the park to help assure continued conservation for the enjoyment of future generations.

Rebecca W. Dolan, PhD is the retired director of the Friesner Herbarium at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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