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.
Meeting that challenge will require convincing more Red Hills property owners that each parcel of quail hunting paradise exists as part of a greater, and irreplaceable, ecological treasure. After all, a dearth of driveways and drive-throughs is only one aspect of a healthy, intact Southern pinelands ecosystem. The ability to manage the land, says Charles Chapin III, is equally important. Chapin is on the Tall Timbers Land Conservancy's easement review committee, and workers on his 3,700-acre Elsoma Plantation, just south of Thomasville, Georgia, will start to burn the woods in a few days. "If a golf course community was nearby, I'm not sure people there would be happy about that," he explains. "Losing the ability to burn on the scale required here is one of the great dangers of losing smaller properties to development. When you carve up the landscape, you lose the marvelous ambience of like-managed properties, yes. But you lose as well the genetic diversity of wildlife, the ability for aquifer recharge, and the basic values of open space."
Those are values beyond simply getting a property "all quailed up," as some locals call the region's traditional approach to conservation. Managing for broader ecological goods and services will require a more holistic view of what the Red Hills has to offer than a season's tally of shot quail. Hope lies in the fact that here, so many human hearts have been tuned to the call of birds--be it the bobwhite's lilting whistle or the Bachman's trill.
"We just love every aspect of what this land offers," says Russell Chubb one morning. "We have wood storks and sandhill cranes, gopher tortoises, and gators. Plenty of gators." Chubb wears khakis with a faint crease, and is prone to lifting his head to watch the trees sway when he hears the wind sighing through the pines. Springwood Plantation, set under Spanish moss-draped oaks and pines two miles from the hardtop road, was built in 1915 for the Thorne family of Chicago, onetime owners of Montgomery Ward department stores. It was used for less than six weeks a year, but Chubb now works year-round to keep the plantation up. In his mind, that means taking it back.
"This isn't a quail plantation so much as a forest ecosystem--sort of a wildlife preserve where you're allowed to hunt," Chubb says. "We are consciously not a quail shooting machine." Timber cutting on Springwood is minimal. Native longleaf pines soar over wiregrass and bracken fern. While it's an atypical approach to managing a quail plantation, it's a balanced brand of Red Hills reconstruction that many conservationists cheer--and hope other plantation owners emulate. "Before man," Chubb says, "no one was managing for basal areas or quail chick production, and the forests and wildlife were doing just fine. That's pretty much our way of doing it now. Let nature prevail. I can be happy with whatever quail are left over."