The Chipola Experimental Forest

A unique sandhills resource

One of the current management goals for the Chipola Experimental Forest is restoring gopher tortoise habitat. Photo by USDA NRCS.

Located in the sandhills of the Florida Panhandle, the Chipola Experimental Forest (Chipola) was established in 1952 on privately owned land under a 99-year lease to the Southern Forest Experiment Station (now the Southern Research Station), International Paper Company, and Hardaway Contracting Company. The two companies requested the cooperative arrangement with the Forest Service to enable research on restoring the cutover sandhills of the region then known as “Deserts in the Rain.”

About 8 million acres of sandhills are scattered across the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. A significant feature of central and northwest Florida, sandhills areas are also found in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Before the 1900s, the area that made up the Chipola was a typical Florida sandhills site with an overstory of longleaf pine trees, a midstory of scattered scrub oaks, and an understory of grasses and other herbaceous plants. Most of the longleaf pines on the site were logged in the 1900s, leaving only a few scattered patches and isolated trees. By the 1950s, when the experimental forest was established, scrub oak and wiregrass had taken over most of the upland sites.

Early research on the Chipola included species comparison trials on various conifers, including the Choctawhatchee sand pine, a native pine species growing almost exclusively in northwest Florida and extreme southeast Alabama. Findings showed that only Choctawhatchee sand pine and longleaf pine can be grown successfully on the deep sand soils that typify the sandhills. Almost all of the current knowledge on how to establish and manage Choctawhatchee sand pine comes from research based on the Chipola.

In the 1990s, land managers in the Florida Panhandle area noted a large decline in wiregrass — a dominant understory plant in the longleaf pine ecosystem — due to mechanical site preparation methods. Southern Research Station (SRS) research plant ecologist Kenneth Outcalt, now retired, used the research plots on the Chipola to address these concerns and to make specific recommendations to reduce soil disturbance and wiregrass mortality.

Until 1981, Forest Service and cooperator research on the Chipola was conducted through a unit based in Marianna, Florida. After the unit closed in 1982, the 2,760-acre experimental forest was reduced to 1,250 acres, then reduced again in the 1990s. In 2004, SRS purchased the 940 acres that currently make up the Chipola.

In 2010, the Apalachicola National Forest assumed management responsibilities for the experimental forest, which is being managed towards improving habitat for wildlife (including the gopher tortoise), restoring longleaf pine to the predominantly sand and slash pine forest, and providing a family hunt area.

For more information, contact the Apalachicola Ranger District.

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