Nature Conservancy Strike Teams Burn to Restore Florida Lands

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Florida, December 19, 2008 (ENS) - A new strike team has been created to help federal, state and local conservation agencies in northeast Florida to conduct controlled burns, wildlife monitoring, removal of invasive species and other tasks that will improve the natural habitat of the region.

Northeast Florida was identified by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists as an area in need of increased controlled burns to maintain the diversity of plants and animals in the region.

The new strike team, known officially as The Northeast Florida Resource Management Support Team, is based out of the University of Florida’s Ordway-Swisher Biological Station.

"Conducting controlled burns not only help maintain the diverse habitats for Florida wildlife but also help reduce fuels, such as woody debris, that in turn can reduce the likelihood of intense wildfires," said Parker Titus, who leads the Northeast Florida Resource Management Support Team.

The new team is assisting public agencies with conservation lands east of I-75 and north from Wekiwa Springs up to the Georgia border. Just two months old, the strike team has assisted conservation agencies with controlled burns across more than 1,000 acres.

"When it came to talking about the priorities for scrub and sandhill habitat, the consensus was clear - more fire on the ground," said Brian Branciforte, State Wildlife Grants program coordinator. "The FWC and Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative worked with The Nature Conservancy to make that happen. This is a project that will build conservation partnerships in the region and enhance the resource."

The Nature Conservancy developed a fire strike team concept in 1999 supported by a suite of funding sources to assist with burns on federal, state, county and private lands. These strike teams are able to help public agencies meet their conservation goals quicker by adding capacity to existing land management staff.

To finance the new three-member team, the Nature Conservancy received a State Wildlife Grant from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FWC, which administers and awards the grant funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to funding the three positions, the grant also has been used to purchase basic equipment, such as a fire truck.

"Our mission is to protect the diverse life of Florida and there’s no more powerful influence on those natural systems than fire," said Zachary Prusak, state fire manager for The Nature Conservancy.

"Just purchasing land is not enough to maintain the diversity of plants and animal species in Florida. Important species like the gopher tortoise and Florida scrub-jay need fire to maintain their habitat," said Prusak. "We appreciate the support of the FWC and their commitment to supporting their partner conservation agencies."

"Here at the Wekiva River Basin state parks, we have used the assistance of The Nature Conservancy team on three occasions to assist us with prescribed fire," said Paul Lammardo, biologist for the Wekiwa Springs State Park. "Their availability had allowed us to burn each of those times and without them we would have had to seek out other assistance or not burn at all."

The Nature Conservancy operates similar fire strike teams in the Lake Wales Ridge area and the Florida Panhandle to assist its partners with land management needs. Other than the conversion of land to other uses, the single greatest threat to sandhills and other rare natural habitats in the region is lack of active management.

Sherry Scott, a biologist for the Greenways and Natural Lands division of Seminole County, said, "With the recent decrease in Natural Lands staff this year, it is imperative for us to have partners like The Nature Conservancy in order to accomplish our land management goals."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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