Ready, Aim, Fire!

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Along the Florida-Georgia border are 80 quail hunting plantations that make up 300,000 acres of accidental nature reserve. Each year scientists and land managers burn tens of thousands of acres and use various other means to mimic natural conditions, preserving a wealth of biodiversity, including the embattled bobwhite quail.

By T. Edward Nickens
Published: January-February 2011

An avid birder's dream list of grassland species is similarly tied into specific niches of pine savanna habitats. Brown-headed nuthatches excavate nesting cavities in decaying stumps and snags, features many quail plantation managers are quick to remove before they can harbor snakes and raptors. Red-cockaded woodpeckers hollow out the heartwood of mature living pines. Henslow's sparrows, whose numbers have declined more steeply than any other North American grassland bird, overwinter in southern pinelands, and burning the woods in early spring can wipe out their habitat. "Quail can carry the water for a lot of these species," Cox says. "There are ecological subtleties that require attention, though, and species that require slightly different habitats that we need to keep in mind. You don't want to get fixed on one approach."

Management issues aside, the greatest challenge to the Wade Tract, and to the Red Hills in general, is keeping the landscape intact. Drive north on U.S. 319 a few miles outside Tallahassee and the helter-skelter of sprawl overwhelms you. Fast-food restaurants and shopping centers crowd both sides of the road. Then, in an instant, there's a hard line in the Florida sand. Route 319 turns into the Kate Ireland Parkway as the highway enters the first lands protected by conservation easements. For the next 19 miles the road rolls through tunnels of live oaks draped with Spanish moss and edged with rolling pine savannas. This is a landscape Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto would remember, and it continues until the last easement peters out, just south of Thomasville, Georgia.

The parkway's namesake is equally unforgettable. In a landscape largely defined by gunpowder, fine horses, and $5,000 dogs, an outspoken, sharp-shooting 80-year-old woman gets much of the credit for kick-starting the Red Hills' conservation agenda. No surprise, Kate Ireland did it on her own terms.

"You may wonder how an old woman like me shoots quail," she asks one day at lunch, with a glance cocked like a bird dog's stiff tail on point. Ireland is fuming over knee problems that have her sidelined; it wasn't so long ago that she shot a wild turkey while hunting with a broken arm in a cast. Now a doctor's visit is keeping her out of the woods for another day. "I bought an electric Bad Boy hunting buggy, and I can ease right there beside those pointers and BAM! They don't mind a bit."

In the late 1980s, when Ireland first began buttonholing fellow landowners about preserving the Red Hills landscape through conservation easements, they had a common reply: What do you mean, protect the land? It's already ours.

"But I was talking about something different than ownership," Ireland says, looking up from a plate of stewed oysters to gaze through tall windows that overlook a pine-studded expanse of lawn. She has an exuberant wave of gray hair and blue eyes that do not waver when fixed on a subject. "I was talking about understanding the land to the depths, and making sure that the next generations will keep it intact and carry on the traditions we have here."

Ireland, from a venerable Cleveland-based coal mining family, has since become one of the most forceful proponents of conservation easements in the region. And she's just as straightforward about the inspiration for keeping the land intact. "Quail, quail, quail, and quail," she says. "That's why I got involved with conservation. I am intrigued by the little curiosities, the woodpeckers, the songbirds. But what I care about is how to make land more agreeable for quail. If we don't have the quail, the other animals won't be there. Pure and simple."

Such a forceful presence carries weight in a place like the Red Hills. "In a community like this, you need that one person to step out and really take a chance," says Kevin McGorty, director of the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy, the land trust associated with the Tall Timbers Research Center. "Kate put her land where her mouth is, so to speak, and donated 4,000 acres in easements. She used that as a bully pulpit, going peer to peer to talk about conservation. Ever since, the red on the map has been growing."

The map McGorty refers to is a large document perched like an unfinished painting on an easel in his office. Each Red Hills quail plantation is outlined, and red blotches denote properties protected with conservation easements held by the conservancy. All told, easements cover 121,741 of the region's 300,000 acres, and spell out parcel-specific timber-cutting guidelines, endangered-species prescriptions, and if and where new homes can be built--a key concern for landowning families with multiple heirs. It's not a perfect solution; disagreements over allowable activities, mainly logging, sometimes wind up in the courts. Still, conservation easements "are one of the best tools we have to keep development out of the Red Hills," agrees Wraithmell. Already, the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy has secured half of a 200,000-acre conservation goal. "It's a tremendous accomplishment," McGorty says. "But we've picked most of the low-hanging fruit." The second 100,000 acres, he admits, will be a tougher row to hoe, since the most willing landowners are already a part of the conservancy.

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