by T. Edward Nickens
He waits for the perfect set of conditions. It’s a tricky call. Things can get out of control. Over the years he’s learned that late winter is best. He watches for a cold front with a steady wind from the north. He monitors atmospheric humidity. If the air is too wet, there’s no reason to try. If it’s too dry, only a fool would give it a go. Then, when it all comes together and it’s time to burn, Dr. Clifton (Bud) Bailey sets his land on fire.
In the pine savannas of north Florida, Bailey understands that the most beneficial thing you can do for nature is to burn the woods. At first blush that might seem counterintuitive. But these grasslands and pines have evolved over millennia to rely on regular, relatively cool, low-to-the-ground fire. Many pines only set seed after their cones have been torched.
Wildflowers burst from the blackened ground with renewed vigor. Seeds and berries flourish. When the ground is cleared of dense brush, wildlife populations skyrocket—quail and wild turkey, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, and rare creatures such as gopher tortoises and Florida pine snakes thrive in the newly burned savannas.
“Few people understand that land is a dynamic system,” explains Bailey. “If you enjoy the things a piece of woods or a savanna allows you to do, then you have to manage the land for the values you desire. Doing nothing is doing something, because land is not a static resource.”
A pulmonologist based in Tallahassee, Florida, Bailey has owned and managed several thousand acres of pinewoods and grasslands and exhibits an approach to land conservation that more and more landowners are taking: actively managing the open lands they’ve acquired and putting into place strategic conservation initiatives that ensure both long-term conservation and short-term enjoyment of their assets.
Bailey owns, or co-owns, several thousand acres of pinelands and pine savanna in the Red Hills region of north Florida and south Georgia. He’s cobbled his properties together over 29 years, beginning in 1989 when he purchased a pecan orchard northwest of Tallahassee, right on the Georgia state line. Raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, he’s always had a close tie to land and an appreciation for passing it along in better condition than he found it. Over the years, he’s dug ponds and planted orchards, timbered tracts strategically to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor and its native grasses, and planted more than 200,000 native longleaf pines.
“Working the land has become my passion. I gave up golf years ago because I’ve spent every weekend on my land for the last 15 years,” Bailey laughs. “It’s an obsessive hobby.”
And a hobby that will pay benefits for generations to come.
Through it all, Bailey has had a strong partner for his conservation efforts: the 3,400-acre privately funded Tall Timbers Research Station. Founded in 1958 on a private hunting plantation outside Tallahassee, Tall Timbers is part research facility, part think tank, and part land conservancy working with private landowners who want to conserve and protect natural habitats. Initially begun to support wildlife habitat conservation on the massive private quail plantations of the Red Hills region, Tall Timbers is now exporting its expertise far beyond the Florida and Georgia pines and working with landowners whose holdings might number in the dozens of acres, not just the thousands.
“We’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out the best way to manage these large private plantations for wildlife and ecological values,” explains Dr. William Palmer, a wildlife biologist and chief executive officer of Tall Timbers Research Station. “Now we’re moving beyond this region and engaging private landowners—large and small—who want to do a better job on their lands.”
The first step in land conservation, of course, is keeping the landscape intact, whether it’s your 60-acre weekend farm or a 3,000-acre quail plantation. By donating development rights to a land conservancy, landowners retain the ability to enjoy the properties in perpetuity. Not only has Bailey donated conservation easements to his properties to the Tall Timbers Lands Conservancy, he’s helped established an endowment fund through the non-profit organization to help other landowners with the legal and real estate fees that come with critical easement donations.
“There are people who are land-rich but cash-poor,” Bailey explains, “and they need a little help with their altruistic desires for land conservation. It actually costs money to give land away, and I’m grateful I’ve been able to help others meet their conservation goals.”
In the Red Hills, you need only drive north on U.S. Route 319 a few miles outside Tallahassee to see the threats of rampant development. At what used to be the lonely crossroads of Bradfordville appears a helter-skelter arrangement of fast-food restaurants and shopping centers that crowd both sides of the road. Then, in an instant, there’s a hard line in the Florida sand, and U.S. 319 turns into the Kate Ireland Parkway as the highway enters the first of the Red Hills 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. It’s a landscape Hernando de Soto would recognize, and it continues until the last easement peters out just south of Thomasville, Georgia.
Large-scale success might not be possible everywhere, but significant strides toward a healthier private lands ethic are being taken across the country. “What’s so exciting to see is how fired up so many smaller landowners are about working their lands for wildlife,” says Palmer. “We’re making huge leaps in our understanding of how to tailor even smaller properties—100 acres, 500 acres, heck, even 50 acres—for wildlife and conservation.”
And Tall Timbers is hardly alone in seeking to help private landowners do the most good on their properties. Local land conservancies not only purchase conservation easements on private lands, but step in to help landowners manage their properties for wildlife habitat and conservation values. In Montana, the Clark Fork Coalition helps private landowners reduce runoff into small trout streams such as Stonewall and Keep Cool creeks, streams that hold cutthroat and brown trout and, ultimately, carry their waters into the Blackfoot River. The private sector has also recognized that good stewardship can mean good business. At Unique Places, a Durham, North Carolina-based real estate investment and asset management company, a team of conservation and real estate professionals helps landowners monetize their land holdings in sustainable ways, guiding landowners through the complex laws governing conservation easements, cost-share opportunities for increasing wildlife habitat, and wetlands mitigation programs.
And you don’t have to be a land baron to play an important role. Through its Conservation Buyer Program, The Nature Conservancy helps link up stewardship-minded buyers with properties that have already been conserved through conservation easements and other programs. Recent properties listed through the program have ranged from rugged, forested canyons in the Alabama mountains to tidal marshes in Louisiana and a grizzly-rich homestead in Idaho.
Another real estate company with a strong land conservation ethic is Mossy Oak Properties, which was founded in 1999 with a single office in Alabama, catering mostly to local deer hunters. It now has more than 100 franchised offices in 27 states, a testament to the growing trend of wildlife and outdoors enthusiasts buying farm and forest properties for the sole purpose of leaving them undeveloped for outdoor recreation.
But for Bud Bailey, having a place to run bird dogs and help friends chase quail is only a part of the puzzle. Conservation ownership, he explains, “has multiple benefits. There are the positive tax ramifications, certainly. And we still have the land, can still work it for wildlife, still bird hunt. But I’ve come to understand that this is a living ecosystem here, and while things are in a constant state of change, the permanence and continuity of improving land appeals to me.”
Now, when he walks through a pine savanna on his property, the mature loblolly pines soar in an overhead canopy. Wiregrass and bluestem and beggarweed rise to his waist. Quail and turkeys abound. “You have to have a long-term vision. And now, looking back over 35 years, seeing how the tall grasses and the pines and the forests have responded, it’s hard to believe I’ve had a hand in this.”
And a hand in the future, for the byproduct of land stewardship is more than an appreciation for natural heritage in the moment. There’s also the rare chance to plant seeds for a different kind of future.