Clearcut of 60 ft. sand pines for pulp in Florida's Ocala National Forest is driven by endangered sand-jay, not economics, says US Forest Service biologist; agency plans 268-acre harvest to create scrub habitat for federally-protected bird

ORLANDO, Florida , May 28, 2013 () – A timber crew made quick work of some 60-foot-tall sand pines with a shearing machine that cuts the trees at the base like a massive pair of scissors.

The fallen trees were stacked onto trucks, destined for pulp mills in Palatka, where the market price for pulp is good. But clear-cutting this stand of trees will have even greater benefits for the forest's resident population of Florida scrub-jays.

The federally protected birds normally thrive on high, dry scrub regularly thinned out by fires. These days, timber harvests fill that role, supervisory biologist Carrie Sekerak said.

"This clear-cut mimics what fire used to do, so it's not the economics driving the need for this timber," she said. "It's the endangered species driving it."

Some 268 acres of older sand pines near Nicatoon Lake will be cut this year, preparing the land to become new territory for the birds in a few years.

Florida scrub-jays, protected as a threatened species, once inhabited 39 counties. But as the high and dry scrub has been developed, their population has dropped, said Craig Faulhaber, statewide scrub-jay conservation coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

That makes it vital to maintain good habitat in the Ocala National Forest, an essential stronghold for the birds, he said.

"A lot of people don't realize Ocala has by far the largest population of scrub-jays in the state, about a third of the population," Faulhaber said.

Florida has about 7,700 to 9,300 scrub-jays, with Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Lake Wales Ridge home to the other two major bird populations, he said.

But even on conservation lands, the bird population has struggled, Faulhaber said.

Scrub-jays can't survive where the woods are too thick to forage for scrub lizards or acorns. They need fewer tall trees and more patches of bare sand. Historically, lightning-sparked forest fires thinned out the scrub for them.

But it can be difficult to burn conservation lands because of the fire risk to adjacent development. A 2011 study found that the scrub-jay population dropped about 25 percent on conservation lands since the 1990s because of the lack of fires, he said.

"In areas where we can restore the habitat, and reintroduce fire, the scrub-jays do much better," he said.

Mechanical cutting of scrub can be an effective substitute, as was proven at the Lyonia Preserve in Volusia County, which has a thriving population of birds in the middle of Deltona, Central Florida's second-largest city.

Clear-cutting in the Ocala forest also does the trick. Towering sand pines, which can fetch a decent price at pulp and mulch mills, are cut down. Remaining are the scrub oaks, a vital source of acorns for scrub-jays and black bears, as well as dead pines that aren't worth anything to the mills but will attract woodpeckers. The old stumps and branches will be chopped and pine cones will remain to restart the next generation of trees.

Bringing back scrub-jays to Nicatoon Lake will have an added meaning for the Friends of Carr Cabin, a Lake County group that helped to restore a 1938 cabin that was the family retreat for well-known Florida naturalist Archie Carr and his brother, Tom Carr, a leading physicist and astronomer.

The cabin serves as a landmark with the same significance for Florida environmentalists as Henry David Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond.

After donating the cabin to the national forest, Tom Carr shared his memories of that woodland retreat. One comment stuck with the forest officials, Sekerak said.

"He remembered hearing scrub-jays from the cabin and told us, 'It would be nice to hear that again,' " Sekerak said.

With the timber harvest this summer, Sekerak said, the birds should come back within three years. or 352-742-5927

Fast facts

Background on the Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens):

--Found only in Florida.

--Population estimated at 7,700 to 9,300.

--Federally listed as a "threatened" species.

--Adult birds 10 to 12 inches long weighing about 3 ounces. Head, nape, wings and tail are pale blue, with pale gray on its back and belly. Throat and upper breast are lightly striped and bordered by a pale blue-gray "bib."

--Lives on high, dry, sandy "scrub" habitat, and its families tend to be territorial.

--Remains threatened by loss of habitat and poor management of existing scrub.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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