By Ginger Feagle, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The Florida Tree Farm Program is proud to congratulate Ben and Louann Williams of Putnam County as Florida’s 2021 Jon Gould Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. Each year, one Tree Farmer (individual or family) in the state is selected who exhibits exceptional forest stewardship to protect and improve our forest resources and promotes forest stewardship within their community. Across Florida, family forest owners like Ben and Louann care for the largest portion, more than half, of Florida’s forests. Their efforts are crucial to the sustainability of our country’s natural resources, such as clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and a wood supply for the products Americans use every day.
Watch their video at 2021 Tree Farmer of the Year – YouTube
After purchasing over 3,700 acres of former industrial timberlands in 2008, the Williams quickly realized they needed to learn the techniques to manage their land and affiliated natural resources, and they also needed to become a positive voice to communicate the value of forest management. As a family coming from 35-years in the seafood business, having started out commercial fishing for their livelihood on the St. Johns River, the Williams understood how government issues, the value of clean water, and the water cycle relate to the productivity of their land. Appropriately, they named their property “Wetland Preserve” to emphasize the land’s connection to nearby water resources.
Ben explains, “Today, one of the most satisfying things for us is to be able to manage the land for income while at the same time be managing it for wildlife and ultimately to be able to help protect water quality. We understand as former commercial fishermen that it is important to protect both the resources and the culture that support your livelihood.”
Every management decision at Wetland Preserve aims to provide sustainable timber products while integrating wildlife habitat improvements for pollinators, gopher tortoises, deer, turkey, quail, bear, fish, and songbirds. Ben and Louann have used sound management and restoration techniques, including Silviculture Best Management Practices to thin dense slash and loblolly stands, plant longleaf pine, remove non-native plants and animals, and introduce prescribed fire. All of these practices ultimately increase timber productivity and improve wildlife habitat by allowing sunlight to stimulate native groundcover, decrease hardwood competition, avoid water quality impacts, and maintain the ecological balance (including the important role of nuisance species such as coyotes) as part of the natural ecosystem. To be successful in these activities, the Williams refer to the guidance of their professional consultant Leonard Wood (Jowett & Wood, Inc.) and Florida Land Steward Partners such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, St. Johns River Water Management District, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Williams stand strong in their commitment to protect Wetland Preserve for future generations by successfully pursuing and acquiring a Florida Forever Conservation Easement that allows them to continue their forestry and wildlife management practices while eliminating the incentives to develop the land. Within this agreement, the Williams have gone above and beyond normal protections by adding limitations on the potential harvest of hardwood oak hammocks and cypress, even further protecting the wetland areas for which the property was aptly named.
Louann and Ben passionately promote the many stewardship organizations they are involved with including the Florida Forestry Association, Forest Stewardship Program, Florida Tree Farm Program, and the North Florida Prescribed Burn Association. The Williams enjoy sharing their trials and experiences with other landowners and are appreciative to those who have helped them along the way. The Williams provide nature-based education and recreational opportunities by hosting field tours, allowing hiking access via the Florida Trail, and organizing disabled veteran hunting events. Ben recently explained, “We always knew it was important, so we just continue to do the outreach – it seemed like the right thing to do. It was never like work, I don’t think at any point someone left our property after taking advantage of the opportunities to come see what we are doing, where we felt like we’ve done some work. We actually felt like we’ve done a little bit to help the industry.” It is because of their community outreach and land management ethic that they earned prior recognition as the 2019 Florida Land Steward Landowner of the Year.
On the Wetland Preserve’s website (http://benandlouann.com/), the Williams proudly boast their property as “Conservation Compatible Forestry” and explain, “Conservation and stewardship are at the heart of how we plan for the future of Wetland Preserve and conduct daily management operations.” Ben explained during the Award presentation at the recent Florida Forestry Association meeting, “We still have friends in the commercial fishing industry, you don’t think about it, but what you do supports other parts of the economy in Florida. Other people are dependent, these things are tied together. So, when we saw the Standards of the American Tree Farm System, we understood how they fit together. We are very supportive of that because it is supporting more than just trees and more than just forestry.”
“The Florida Tree Farm Program commends Ben and Louann Williams for their outstanding commitment to sustainable forestry,” said Tony Grossman, President of the Florida Tree Farm Program. “The Williams are great examples of Floridians who combine wood, water, wildlife, and recreation values with working their land and sharing with others to lead the way.”
The Florida Tree Farm Program greatly appreciates the positive impact that Ben and Louann Williams provide to Florida landowners as the 2021 Jon Gould Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year.
Watch their video at 2021 Tree Farmer of the Year – YouTube
The American Tree Farm System®, a program of the American Forest Foundation, is administered locally by the Florida Tree Farm Program. The American Tree Farm System® is the largest and oldest sustainable woodland program in the United States designed specifically for family forest owners. The program provides over 69,000 family forest owners with tools, education, and a community of shared interest to support their conservation goals. Enrolled Tree Farmers, in return, care for their land, meeting rigorous Standards of Sustainability that are internationally endorsed and recognized to assure the provision of wood supplies, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and clean water. Collectively, there are nearly 18 million forested acres within the ATFS program in the United States. The American Tree Farm System and the American Forest Foundation share a mission to deliver meaningful conservation impact through the empowerment of family forest landowners. To learn more about the Florida Tree Farm Program, visit their website https://www.treefarmsystem.org/florida.
This article was written and submitted by Ginger Feagle, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.