The Withlacoochee State Forest is 164,073 acres of pure Florida nature. Sandhill habitats to luscious swamps deep within the heart of the forest which spreads through sections of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Pasco, and Sumter counties. This forest is home to thousands of wildlife and plant species as well as opportunities for recreational adventures and land stewardship.
In Citrus County, Nicole Howard is responsible for many areas of the Withlacoochee State Forest. I met up with her at the Oak Park south trailhead in Homosassa to learn more about her upcoming project.
Nicole Howard holds a position with the Florida Forest Service (FFS) as a Forestry Supervisor II. She began her career with the FFS 16 years ago after graduating from the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
“I kept imagining myself as an occupational therapist and what I would want to do with the patients. My mind kept going towards; we can plant plants,” Nicole remembered. “If I’m constantly going towards working in nature, why don’t I pick a degree working in nature.”
After spending several years as the Hernando County Forester, she assumed her current position supervising foresters and technicians managing State Forest land and recreational areas in Citrus and Hernando counties.
Although supervising is her primary duty, she is also involved in silviculture, including timber sales, grazing, and apiary leases, and managing the ecosystems.
As we walked on the soft sand trail at Oak Park South trailhead, we talked about many things, especially how it is undergoing restoration efforts to bring the area back to its original habitat.
“In the very beginning, it would have been a longleaf sandhill site,” Nicole said.
Hundreds of years ago, Florida was full of healthy and prominent longleaf pine. Unfortunately, logging in the 1900s harvested a good portion of those longleaf pines. Over decades of planting and thinning slash and sand pines, this area has gone through harsh transitions.
“The people who work for the FFS truly care about the environment. The work we do, even though sometimes from the outside looking in looks shocking, like a clear cut, we really truly do have the health of the environment in mind. That is our goal,” Nicole said.
In mid-August, 171,215 longleaf pine seedlings will begin their long journey to restore this 283-acre location to a beautiful longleaf habitat.
It will take these seedlings 30 years to mature and produce cones to establish a healthy habitat for many herbaceous plant species that wildlife need.
As the longleaf pine can live up to 300 years, it’s hard to phantom that these seedlings will outlive us all. The dedication of Nicole and those who provide a service to the forest ensures the quality and protection of these ecosystems so that nature can thrive beyond our years.
As this concludes my series of Meeting the People that Manage the Withlacoochee State Forest, I would like to thank everyone that let me be a part of their workday.