By Chad Allison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Megan Ellis, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Stephen and Danna Matheny own and manage approximately 90 acres in Madison County, most of which has been in their family for generations. Steve grew up watching the orange glow of prescribed fire creep across a dark landscape as his family performed night burns on their property. Outside his window, light and shadows cast by flames and vegetation fought until only glowing embers remained in their wake, sparkling like stars across the forest floor. Steve knew his calling was to be among the backlit silhouettes of his family on those burns one day, so that he too could preserve the history of their land and the wildlife that call it home.
Carrying on a Stewardship Legacy
Steve’s family lived on and managed the “big woods” for generations, and stories dating back to the Civil War were passed down to him. Over time, as the Matheny family grew and aged, the children divided the property and converted much of the old piney woods to agricultural crops until only Steve’s 90 acres and his parent’s 70 acres remained, isolated and changed by oak encroachment and harvesting. It is here that Steve dedicated the rest of his life to the conservation and restoration of the longleaf pine forest on their property and has spent the last decade working to rehabilitate these woods. Working closely with Blanton’s Longleaf Container Nursery and other partners, he strives to restore the historic ecosystems on his property to preserve the legacy of the land using Florida growing stock when available. He is devoted to the Stoddard-Neel approach to managing longleaf stands, maintaining varied ages of trees and using natural regeneration in the long-term.
Steve has worked with the Florida Forest Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service to achieve his goals on the property. He has a Forest Stewardship Plan and earned a Wildlife Habitat Recognition Program sign for his efforts in promoting wildlife habitat. He completes most land management activities on his own including prescribed fire, hardwood reduction treatments, mowing, and fireline maintenance. He will occasionally take off work from his day job with the railroad to complete necessary management practices on his property that require certain timing to achieve his goals.
Outreach to the Community
Steve has a passion for land stewardship and is eager to share his experience and success with other members of the community, and he does so by offering his property as an educational opportunity for anyone interested including the Madison Landowner Cooperative Group. He has also worked closely with his County Forester, Zachary Butler, for years to improve management and host school children for lessons in longleaf pine ecology. These interactions educate the next generation of longleaf advocates while encouraging other landowners to explore options for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration on their own properties.
Today, a family of pileated woodpeckers forage in the adult longleaf pines, fox pups play at the mouth of a gopher tortoise burrow, northern bobwhite sing every spring day, and young gopher tortoises feast on bountiful herbaceous plants. Steve has replanted longleaf pine on 20 acres, reduced hardwood encroachment and used prescribed fire to restore 30 acres of adult longleaf pines and robust native groundcover while encouraging natural regeneration of longleaf pine. He retains snags on the property for wildlife habitat and plans to manage the mature longleaf pines using the Stoddard-Neel method. Steve views his woods through an ecological and landscape-scale lens and strives to promote habitat in an area that has fragmented and degraded through time. His property remains one of the last areas of intact groundcover and adult longleaf pines actively maintained with fire in the area, and he hopes to keep it that way for many years to come.
This article was written and submitted by Chad Allison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Megan Ellis, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission