Paradise Found

The Sand Hill Lakes Mitigation Bank Offers a Unique, Low-Impact Hunting and Fishing Program

By Faith Eidse

T ranquil ponds mirror flared cypress trunks, great egrets, rare white-top pitcher plants and purple pickerel weed on a once-private fishing ranch near the Washington County community of Greenhead. Red-winged blackbirds soar and bees buzz among yellow St. John’s wort blossoms in these ecologically rich backwoods purchased by the Northwest Florida Water Management District to offset wetlands lost to nearby growth. There is not a house or office building, not a traffic light or blaring horn to break the serene sand hill lakes scene.

Here, on 2,155 acres sporting lunker bass, reclusive alligators and snowy egrets, the water management district has received state and federal permits to operate the Sand Hill Lakes Mitigation Bank – and to restore the ecology of the Pine Log Creek headwaters, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River. District groundwater studies also show sinkholes and solution ponds likely recharging the Floridan Aquifer springs of Econfina Creek. For this reason, the refuge of 25 listed plant and animal species, located near State Road 77, has been added to the 42,000-acre Econfina Creek Water Management Area.

The Sand Hill Lakes Mitigation Bank once was a private fishing ranch of the late Fitzhugh Carter, a Vernon High School teacher and principal. He ditched, dammed and connected numerous natural lakes, ponds and sloughs for optimal fishing – activities that if approved today would require extensive permitting and mitigation.

“I recall exactly where I was in the ponds when I hooked a 7-pound bass; I was 15,” remembers William “Bill” Cleckley, now director of the water management district’s Division of Land Management and Acquisition. “My father had discovered these lakes connected with Pine Log Creek before I was born, while he was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in 1948.”

Cleckley returned after college to run a hand-built sawmill that cut pond cypress for six bridges across various canals. A two-room school and Dykes Mill once stood on the property, but an archaeological survey funded by the Northwest Florida Water Management District located only remains of Eleanor Dykes’ home near the school site.

As housing developments sprang up nearby, Cleckley hoped to protect the lakes and creek he and his father had enjoyed. His opportunity came when the Carters offered the tract to the water management district, which eventually acquired it for $4.3 million. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a state permit for the mitigation bank in September 2005, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a federal permit in May 2006.

In addition to protecting area lakes and waterways, the property will be opened for limited public recreation with a special opportunity fishing program that Cleckley organized in stakeholder meetings with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and interested anglers, boaters, hunters and adjoining landowners. Together, they designed a low-impact fishing and hunting program. The program permits up to 10 anglers to schedule fishing by reservation and 10 more anglers to check in without reservations at an FWC check station on Leisure Lake Road near Greenhead. Fishing and hunting will continue as long as ecological integrity and restoration efforts are not compromised.

“Developing the first publicly held bank in Northwest Florida enables the district to make substantial water resource improvements,” says Ron Bartel, director of the water management district’s Resource Management Division. “It also provides a level of resource protection for the Choctawhatchee River and Econfina Creek watersheds that goes far beyond compensation for highway construction impacts and mitigation credit.”

Using photos taken before significant hydrologic alterations, environmental scientists with the water management district assessed and planned various methods to enhance and restore the wetlands. Roads, stream crossings and culverts that had affected wetlands and water bodies were removed or replaced after 50 years of deterioration.

The district completed required mapping, circling various ecological communities and assigning each a functional value based on its condition and potential for restoration and mitigation bank credit.

“The Sand Hill Lakes Mitigation Bank provides more large-scale ecological benefits than most mitigation efforts,” says Duncan Cairns, the water management district’s chief of Environmental and Resource Planning. “More often than not, our mitigation lift value exceeds the wetland functional loss for any given construction project.”

To prevent aquatic-plant invasions, no outside boats will be allowed. Instead, eight 14-foot aluminum boats have been ordered. Five will be available for reservation; three will be provided to those who come first. Also, anglers will receive a creel kit (fish box) with an information sheet to help survey fish populations. Preliminary surveys have identified large, healthy fish.

While the number of anglers and hunters are limited during specific times of the year, other visitors will be allowed on the property to hike, bird-watch or experience nature. Snowy egrets, blue herons, tricolored herons, cattle egrets, great egrets, bald eagles and osprey all have been seen on the property.

“My father loved the outdoors, especially fishing and hunting. Some of my fondest childhood memories are when our family was experiencing nature,” Cleckley says. “I hope many people will take advantage of this unique and special opportunity for years to come.”

With more than 200,000 acres purchased for preservation by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, Cleckley has been expanding opportunities for Northwest Florida residents to appreciate nature for more than 20 years.

Categories: Hunting