Written in 2005 by Tiana Larsen and originally published in the Defuniak Herald Beach Breeze
Much of the story of the acquisition of the Point Washington State Forest has been forgotten or altered in the telling during the 13 years since the state purchased the land.
Virtually unknown to new residents of south Walton, the history of the acquisition of the 18,000-plus acres is a fascinating saga with elements of high drama, shady characters, foreign investors, and political intrigue. The story crosses the country from Texas banks to Washington D.C. to the steps of the Walton County Courthouse and to hearing rooms in Tallahassee.
History of the Purchase:
Most of the land, including pristine beachfront now included in Topsail Hill State Preserve, was owned by St. Joe, which was then known as the St. Joe Paper Company.
In 1986, a development company, Emerald Coast Joint Venture, bought most of the land from St. Joe and announced plans for hotels, homes, golf courses, and even an airport.
Before anything was built, however, the company's finances collapsed, leaving behind a morass of documents, related corporations, side deals, and complicated loans.
In September of 1991, a grand jury impaneled by the U.S. District Court for the Northern Division of Florida returned a 115-page, 15-count indictment against 14 defendants involved with Emerald Coast Joint Venture.
Charges included conspiracy, bank fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. A five-month trial resulted in a number of convictions and jail terms.
Two savings and loans in Pennsylvania and Texas allegedly lost $102 million on the deal, and when they bankrupted, the land ended up in the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC). (The RTC was the organization set up in 1989 by the federal government to dispose of assets of failed thrift institutions.)
In May of 1992, the RTC auctioned off its entire south Walton holdings, in an all or-nothing package. The State of Florida, which had long been interested in acquiring the Topsail property, bought it all, through the Nature Conservancy, literally at the eleventh hour, at an auction on the Walton County Courthouse steps.
A little-known fact about the purchase is that of the 18,320 acres, 17,672 acres were on the state's wish list of properties to purchase for conservation, the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) list. Although the Topsail Hill property was the state’s top priority, the Pt. Washington forest acreage had also been added to the list, in 1990.
Florida Fish & Game (now the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission) sponsored the original Pt. Washington Forest project, which went through a number of state studies before being added to the CARL list.
At the time it was added, it was low on the list for two reasons, according to Ruark Cleary, a state biologist who worked on the project with the state Conservation and Recreation Lands Trust. It was a larger project than the state was used to working with, and at the time, there was no reason to think that the property would be available for purchase by the state.
Roark said that the agency’s vision at the time was to obtain the Pt. Washington land and the Topsail Hill land, and combine them into an ecosystem project that could tie into Water Management District land in the Choctawhatchee River basin. According to Cleary, “there is nothing in the record to support the idea that the state only wanted Topsail and never wanted the Pt. Washington tract,” an idea that still surfaces from time to time.
Another little known fact is that there was once a “Point-Washington Phase II” project that involved an additional 10,000 acres that would be used to create a greenway all the way from Georgia to the Gulf in the eastern end of Walton County. Phase II, however, never made it past the idea stage, in part because of the political climate in Walton County, which was unfavorable for large state land purchases.
The state bought the property with $20 million in Preservation 2000 funds, the 10 year program begun in 1990 to purchase and preserve environmentally special land. Another $90 million or so was spent to acquire the portion of Topsail Hill that was retained by St. Joe and later purchased through eminent domain proceedings.
The Walton County Commission went on record at the time as opposing the purchase by the state, with the primary objections being the removal of land from the county's tax rolls and the loss of future potential private development.
The county's opposition and other events taking place at the same time set the stage for a confrontation between the county, development interests, and citizens’ conservation organizations that would not be resolved until a Cabinet meeting in Tallahassee four and one-half years later.
In 1985, the state passed the Growth Management Act, which required all counties in the state to adopt comprehensive plans. In 1992, when the state land purchase took place, the county still did not have a compliant plan. At this point, the state stepped in with funding and a legislatively created entity, the South Walton Conservation and Development Trust.
The Trust was charged with creating a comprehensive plan, performing an environmental analysis of the ecosystem, creating greenways linking preservation areas and parks, providing for affordable housing, and so forth.
Part of its mission was the creation of an acquisition and disposition plan for state owned land. The concept of this aspect of the plan was to clean up conservation borders using disposition of undesirable, isolated parcels and to acquire privately held parcels within the conservation boundary. The final Trust recommendation was for the disposition of nearly 3000 acres, and the acquisition of about 500 acres.
Walton County, meanwhile, was continuing to lobby for more land to be sold off by the state and made available for commercial development. The Ecosystem Management Team, an implementation panel set up with the county's blessing to follow up on the Trust’s work, made a recommendation that the state dispose of land for the New Town center on Hwy. 331, now the Government and Education Center. The original New Town proposal was for considerably more acreage, and included housing and commercial development.
Also included in the team's disposition recommendation were three environmentally sensitive parcels that were contiguous with state land and did not appear to meet the disposition criteria. These included 245 acres in Seagrove containing the Cassine Gardens Cypress Swamp Nature Trail, and an 80-acre parcel in Blue Mountain Beach at the headwaters of Redfish Lake.
In July of 1996, community members learned that the state's Land Acquisition and Advisory Council was going to approve redrawing the conservation map without public hearings. All the land left outside the new boundaries, including New Town and the Cassine Trail, would be “surplus,” and available for sale to private interests or the county.
The conservation organization Beach to Bay Connection asked for a public hearing in south Walton. Over 500 local residents turned out at Bay Elementary for a standing room only meeting on a hot summer night, and nearly unanimously expressed a desire to retain all the state lands for conservation.
After another series of meetings in Tallahassee, the amount of the disposition acreage was reduced, as was the size of the New Town site, which was modified to limit its uses to civic services such as government and education, and the Cassine Trail was saved from development.
The Forest Today (2005)
The Pt. Washington State Forest today consists of 15,258 acres. The other 3000 acres from the original purchase were transferred into the state park system and are included in Deer Lake, Grayton, and Topsail Hill State Parks.
Since the purchase ten years ago, about 1.7 million longleaf pine seedlings have been planted, according to Tom Beitzel, of the State Division of Forestry, the managing agency for the forest.
This replanting is the biggest accomplishment towards restoration, Beitzel said. Most of these have been planted on about 1800 acres. The rest of the forest is reseeding itself, or consists of smaller parcels that have not been cut. When the state purchased the land, it was pretty well cut over, Beitzel noted.
The longleaf pine community comprises a large part of the Pt. Washington forest. These forests once covered over 70 million acres of the Southern U.S. from Virginia to Texas. In 1714 the water-powered sawmill was invented, and by the 1760s there were hundreds of these operating along streams and rivers all over the south. Timbering and turpentining left much of the forest weakened, and what remained was finished off by the second wave of logging from about 1870 to the 1920’s, when nearly all that remained was logged with the help of steam sawmills and railroads.
Many of the remnants of longleaf that survived are in areas where fire has been suppressed. Lack of fire allows hardwoods and other plants to grow too tall and thick in the under story of the pines. The increased shade eliminates the native wiregrass and other plants normally found in the longleaf forests, which would naturally be quite open.
Beitzel is happy with the return of fire to the forest. In the old days, the coastal plain had large areas without any natural firebreaks, such as a large body of water or extensive wetlands. A lightening ignited fire in this area could burn a significant part of the forest, or, without firefighters to suppress them, many small fires burning at the same time could do the same thing.
Without fire, the natural plant communities are altered, and along with them, the animals that depend on the habitat also disappear. Beitzel has instituted a prescribed burn program on about 10,000 acres of the forest. The western part of the forest, which is still a mosaic of smaller, unconnected parcels, is more difficult to burn because of the proximity to homes.
The state has bought some additional acres in this mosaic and closed up a couple of places. An effort to consolidate the forest holdings and sell the surplus lands is still ongoing, with land trade negotiations underway. Recently a parcel on East Hewitt where an eagle’s nest is located was added to the forest. This parcel also provides a second area where the forest touches the Choctawhatchee Bay, with the other being just west of Don Bishop Road.
When St. Joe owned the land, it was included, by agreement with St. Joe, in the Pt. Washington Wildlife Management Area. However, during the period of other private ownership after St. Joe, there were private hunting clubs that mostly hunted the area out.
Since then, deer have returned to the forest. The Florida Wildlife Commission co-manages the area along with the Division of Forestry, and manages hunting in the forest, which is allowed on about 12,000 acres.
Some rare species found in the forest include the gopher tortoise (gopher tortoise burrows are used by many other species), flatwoods salamander, white-topped pitcher plant, and the world's largest population of Curtiss sandgrass, a rare native grass.
Trails and Recreation
The forest is also used for off-road bicycling and hiking. The Eastern Lake Trail, dedicated in 1996, is accessible from a trailhead parking lot located on CR395, between C30A and Hwy. 98. This trail consists of three double loops of three-and-one-half, five, or ten miles. The Cassine trail and a view of the headwaters of Eastern Lake are located on the southern section of the trail.
The Longleaf Greenway Trail is the latest one to be completed. This trail starts on CR395, on the opposite side of the road from the Eastern Lake trailhead parking lot, and runs west all the way to Satinwood Drive in Blue Mountain Beach.
It is eight miles long, and crosses several county roads that connect to the C30A bike path. These can be followed to provide a loop trail to return bike riders to the parking lot on CR395. Maps of the trails and forest information can be found at the trailhead parking lot.
Much of the work on the trails has been done by volunteers from Beach to Bay Connection, working with Forestry staff. Chair Celeste Cobena, who had a vision of trails linking the parks, the forest, the beach and the bay, remarked recently that those trails are now a reality.
“The big worry now is that we will see pressure for roads through the forest. It is important we don't lose the forest,” Cobena said.
An 11-mile, double-loop trail for horses is under construction off Bay Drive, north of US 98. The parking lot has been completed, but the trail itself, which requires two bridges, has not been completed. Construction fell behind in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.
In the coming years, some of the longleaf pines planted will need thinning and will be big enough to sell. Beitzel hopes to be able to do some timber marketing, with a high-quality, high-demand product that will generate some income. So far, he said, $118,000 has been realized from timber sales. In lieu of property taxes, ten percent of this income goes to the Walton County School Board.
Ten percent, or $75,000, of another recent sale also went to the school district. Sand from the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway onto banks within the forest was sold for S500,000, for fisi used in the widening of US 98.
Beitzel hopes to complete more trails, and also continue the restoration of the forest ecology, removing more slash and sand pines that have taken over some areas in the absence of fire.