The Box R management plan will gradually change the face of FranklinCounty by returning thousands of acres of pine plantation to a more natural condition.

Many people have asked what are future plans for several large tracts of land that have been cleared adjacent to US 98 west of Apalachicola. The answer is they will remain undeveloped.

One area just before the city work yard has been planted with longleaf pine seedlings. A second large tract surrounding the Box-R check station has been cleared and will continue to be regularly burned so it can return to its former role as a wetland prairie.

These areas are part of the Box R Wildlife Management Area and they are returning to their original use; protecting the bay. Box-R and adjacent natural lands act as a buffer and purify ground water before it filters into FranklinCounty’s estuary.

On Nov. 5, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission representatives outlined future plans for Box-R at a sparsely attended public meeting.

According to FWC, Box-R is managed for a diversity of wildlife species through timber management (thinning and reforestation), prescribed burning and hydrological restoration. Wildlife openings are maintained and enhanced to attract deer, turkey, rabbits, quail, dove and snipe. Selective openings are planted with native or non-invasive agricultural crops to provide wildlife viewing opportunities, dove hunting and high-quality forage for deer, turkey, dove and quail.

Selected upland sites are being restored. Existing slash pine and loblolly pine plantations are grown out to harvestable sizes, commercially thinned and converted to longleaf pine where appropriate. The slash and longleaf pine flatwoods communities are managed with selective thinning and regular growing season burns to promote an open and grassy understory, with scattered saw palmettos and gallberry. Regular burns reduce hardwood competition, enhance pine seed germination, recycle nutrients and provide a diverse groundcover community for a variety of wildlife species. The growth of hardwoods and woody shrubs in clear-cut areas is controlled by chemical and mechanical means and prescribed fire. These openings are then replanted in longleaf pine or slash pine.

Box-R is about 48 percent pinewoods and 21 percent mixed wetland forest but also contains areas of shrub and brush, shrub swamp, hardwood swamp, freshwater marsh and wet prairie, cypress swamp, bay swamp and open water.

Gary Cochran, the meeting facilitator, said FWC receives primary guidance about use of Box-R from the state legislature. Plans must then be reviewed in a public hearing and is then reviewed by FWC, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

FWC also consults adjacent landowners and stakeholders who use the land for hunting, wildlife viewing and other purposes. Current plans will be reviewed by Florida’s Acquisition and Restoration Council sometime next spring.

Plans for Box-R seek to preserve large tracts of undeveloped land for native plants and animals and to restore habitats that were converted to pine plantation when the land was owned by the St. Joe Company. FWC also hopes to increase public access to Box-R and possible improvements include a kayak launch, informational kiosks and signs on site. A trail map is also being developed.

 Box-R encompasses 11,216 acres in Franklin and Gulf counties. The initial acquisition of lands occurred when the Nature Conservancy, acting as an acquisition intermediary for the state, acquired 7,597 acres from the St. Joe Timber Company in April 2003.

Subsequently, in Dec. 2003 the FWC and DEP jointly acquired the original 7,597 acres from the conservancy through the FWC’s Florida Forever Additions and Inholdings Acquisition Program and the DEP’s Florida Forever Program, respectively, as part of the Lake Wimico Preseve Unit of the St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever Project.

In April 2005, an 800-acre tract of the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area contiguous to Box-R was added to the established boundary. In Jan. 2009, the most recent addition to the area occurred from the acquisition of an additional 2,819 acres within the Lake Wimico Preserve Unit of the St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever Project by the DEP.

Box-R Manager Jerry Pitts said over 66,000 people access Box-R annually. Most of them use the Abercrombie Boat Ramp. It is estimated Box-R generates about $13,000 in income for local businesses annually and contributes to 131 local jobs.