Conserving and protecting land from development is critically important, but managing and maintaining native habitat remains a long-term endeavor.
Corkscrew Sanctuary’s old-growth bald cypress forest, marshes, wet prairies, and pine flatwoods – and the wildlife that call these habitats home – were protected through the era of plume-hunting and the widespread logging of the Big Cypress Swamp. After being acquired by National Audubon Society in the early 1950s, the nonprofit protected Corkscrew from the development boom that swept across Southwest Florida, particularly the intense development we’ve seen in our region in recent decades. While the Sanctuary’s boundaries ensure our 13,000 acres won’t be lost to development, our land managers continue to fight a daily battle to maintain our native habitats in the face of increasing pressures placed on Corkscrew from outside our boundaries.
Southwest Florida’s native habitats are maintained by the annual rise and fall of water levels and frequency of wildfire. In 2018, Audubon began an ambitious effort to remove Carolina willow and other shrubs that have spread across Corkscrew Sanctuary in order to restore 1,000 acres of wet prairie and marsh. The spread of these shrubs has exacerbated Corkscrew’s water loss and prevented efforts to use fire as an effective management tool. Additionally, the conversion of grassy wetlands to shrubs has reduced small fish availability and resulted in poor foraging habitat for wading birds.
The removal is a multi-year process that requires our team to act both nimbly and efficiently. In the short window of time that marshes dry in the spring, we bring in large machinery to mechanically remove the shrubs, mulching and leaving the vegetation to decompose and return the nutrients to the marsh. For the next three to five years, our land management team is on the ground within these plots, removing opportunistic non-native plants that are quick to colonize the newly-created habitat so that native plants can become established. Finally, our team brings prescribed fire back into these restored wetlands, and fire is used longterm as the primary management tool.
From mid-April to early June of 2019, we cleared 229 acres of important marsh and prairie habitat, bringing this restoration project to a total of 570 acres. In the coming year, we hope to bring the first fire back into our restored wetlands.
By quantifying the change in plant communities and wildlife use, we can evaluate the effectiveness of the restoration process. Our goal is for Corkscrew to serve as a model for wetland management and restoration throughout our state.