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Ocala Forest Begins $800K Project To Help Wildlife, Stop Wildfires

Hurricane Hermine pushed back the start date of a mowing project for the Ocala National Forest that is meant to reduce the risk of wildfires and improve the forest's health.

Instead of starting on Sept. 1, the project began Thursday.

Carrie Sekerak, a supervisory biologist for the Ocala National Forest, estimated the project will be finished by Dec. 31, weather permitting. However, if other severe weather moves in, it could run as long as March.

The improvements consist of mowing 3,000 acres to lower the risk of wildfires and get rid of vegetation crowding the ground. The mowing machines will also take down small trees, which crowd the soil and make it unhealthy for the existing trees, Sekerak said.

Trees need space, sunlight and water, Sekerak said. Mowing around them also creates a better habitat for endangered and threatened species, like the Florida scrub-jay and the ghost snake.

“It will look messy. It will look ugly the first couple of months. It will look like an actual hurricane went through it," she said of the mowing. "But Florida decomposes quickly, and the [mowed vegetation] stems will add nutrients to the sandy soil."

The project will start in Paisley Woods and Norwalk Island, then will progress west to the south side of Riverside Island and the western area along Lake Kerr.

Six mowing machines will target 13 areas, and each machine is working on 8 acres a day.

The Ocala National Forest competed against all other forests in the National Parks Service's southern region for funding for the project, called fuels reduction funding, Sekerak said. It's called "fuels reduction" because vegetation crowding increases the risk of wildfires.

The park was awarded $800,000 for the mowing project.

The forest received the award because the U.S. Forest Service is targeting areas with the most endangered and threatened species, Sekerak said, noting the scrub-jay and ghost snake.

Right now, visitors aren't able to see through the trees because of overcrowding, said Denise Rains, a public services staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service. If the project goes moves forward as planned, she added, the forest will return to its pre-civilization state – open and park-like.

"That is what was historically there," she said.

The project includes wildfire-prevention mowing because, though naturally occurring wildfires provide nutritious ground cover and reduce competition, they can be dangerous to nearby residents.

The following communities will receive fire-protection mowing:

  • Meadows subdivision and Shockley Hills in Lake County
  • The west and north side of Lake Kerr in Marion County
  • The Norwalk Island communities from the east shore of Lake Delancy to the east boundary of the sandhill

Eight months after mowing, people will see "tremendous restoration," Sekerak said. There will be a diversity of wild flowers, which will attract more pollinators, like bees. This will increase pollination, which is low right now in Florida.

Pollination is the lifeblood of a healthy sandhill, Sekerak said.

Different types of grasses, like wiregrass, love grass and bluestem grass, will start growing. People will also be able to see through the forest.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's division of hunting and game management hasn't heard of any concerns from hunters about the project, said Tammy Sapp, a spokeswoman for the commission.

But Sekerak said the park itself has received some pushback because the project overlaps with deer-hunting season. The season begins Sept. 17 and runs until Jan. 22 for Florida's Zone C, which includes Ocala National Forest.

To alert hunters of areas being worked on, the park hung pink flags reading "Timber Harvest Boundary." But hunters can still hunt in those areas if they want, Sekerak said.

People have been scouting deer movement in preparation for the season, Sekerak said.

“Hunting is not shopping; it is hard work,” she said, noting that officials didn't want to impact them with the project.

Hunters can call the Ocala National Forest at 352-669-3153 for updates and work locations to plan their hunts accordingly.

Nina Rodriguez is a reporter for WUFT news and can be reached at 352-392-6397 or nina.rodriguez@ufl.edu.