Ocala National Forest has operated at a loss the past 14 years. The loss hasn’t been a result of fiscal issues but from Mother Nature.
The forest covers about 383,000 acres of land, according to the forest’s website. Tree cover has significantly declined near Juniper Prairie, located near the intersection of State Road 19 and State Road 40 southwest of Lake George.
Scott Sager, a forester for the University of Florida’s Austin Cary Forest, spoke on a few potential causes for the deforestation.
“Ocala’s a really neat ecosystem because of the sand pine scrub,” Sager said. “Sand pine is a very short-lived species. It only lives for about 50 years and then it either falls over, because it’s susceptible to root rot and fungal issues, or it catches fire. Sometimes, it does both. Fires in the sand pine scrub are what we call standard replacement fires.”
Standard replacement fires do not burn the understory of a forest, which is the underlying vegetation layer. These fires essentially reset the land by burning adult trees that provide cover for Global Forest Watch’s map tracks, an interactive map that allows users to see deforestation anywhere in the world. Sager said that while these fires appear catastrophic, it is a natural process that allows future growth.
“It’s news to me that it’s showing less vegetation,” said Michael Gosse, a ranger at the Lake George Forest District. Gosse described himself as “fairly new” to the Ocala National Forest after joining the staff less than a year ago. “Overall, there’s a trend nationwide that we’re losing more trees than we’re gaining.”
Ludie Bond, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Forestry, could not provide specifics regarding the Ocala National Forest due to its federal standing, but she had a few ideas for why this is occurring.
“Knowing what I know, having worked on the Ocala National, it’s probably one of two things,” Bond said, “It’s either wildfires or harvesting, because they do harvest timber in the Ocala National.”
Bond also provided details regarding issues on Florida’s state forests, which could explain the reason for Ocala National Forest’s loss of tree cover.
“We’ve had a lot of timber loss in Goethe Forest in Levy County,” Bond said. “That’s been a combination of wildfires and timber harvesting.”
Wildfires will sometimes cause trees to be harvested sooner than scheduled, Bond said. In addition to completely burning trees down, fires can damage the trees, making the timber less valuable at mills. These fires cause agencies to have a short period of time when they can harvest the trees at their best value, which could contribute to cover loss.
Tree cover loss in the Ocala National Forest spiked in 2006 and 2009.
In 2006, a prescribed fire in the Juniper Prairie raged out of control and into sand pine areas. The resulting fires burned about 11,120 acres, according to UF records. In 2009, a smaller area to the south of the 2006 location caught fire when a campfire escaped, burning about 6,425 acres.
The northern half of Florida is predicted to experience fewer fires than the southern half of the state through the end of March. This is a result of wetter than normal conditions in the north, as compared to the drier conditions in the south.
Sager and Bond opinions suggest that the Ocala National Forest is not being over-harvested or deforested. However, tree cover loss is noticeable in a snapshot of the forest recovering from two notable forest fires.
“We haven’t harvested any more timber than we have in the past,” Gosse said. “We haven’t had any hurricanes. We haven’t done anything different last year that we’ve done the past ten years.”