Since record-keeping began in 1851, over 85% of all Category 3+ major Hurricanes in the United States have made landfall along the Gulf States. Additionally, with 14 of those storms in just the past 20 years, the frequency and severity create an ever-increasing threat to our coastal and inland communities, resources, and people.
Restoring ecological function by preserving and protecting the landscape is a critical first step for communities and landowners on the road to recovery. Nature-based solutions are great alternatives that are better able to withstand the perturbations from living on the dynamic coastal interchange of land and sea.
Working with our conservation members, federal, state, and local partners, and landowners, the Gulf Partnership facilitates resource recovery, from land clearing, mulching, thinning, vegetation management, and installation of fire breaks, to reforestation efforts. We are proud to partner with these organizations and provide the best possible support to our communities and landowners during their time of greatest need.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael became the largest hurricane on record to hit the Florida Panhandle. With maximum sustained winds of 160 mph and a storm surge of 15 ft, this Category 5 storm caused catastrophic impacts to infrastructure, communities, and habitats. Estimates indicate more than 2.8 million acres of timber suffered damage due to the hurricane, ranging from moderate losses to complete devastation, and stretching from the coast into Georgia and Alabama.
Severe, long-lasting impacts from Hurricane Michael, as well as those from Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005), have left Florida Panhandle communities overcome with increased vulnerability for future natural disasters. Existing fuel loads along the path of Hurricane Michael were the driving factor in the recent Chipola Complex Wildfire (March 2022) that burned more than 34,000 acres, leaving the communities of Gulf, Bay, and Calhoun counties destroyed.
Following the aftermath, addressing wildlife risk to protect persons/property while restoring habitat, and ecological function became a regional priority. Due to the extensive damage and limited resources, thus far, conservation partners have only been able to remove approximately 30% of the timber debris in the area. Estimates indicate approximately 72M tons of forest debris remain from Hurricane Michael leaving private and public landowners struggling to recover. Reducing hazardous fuels and limiting fire behavior in the Florida Panhandle is essential for the protection of private property.
Funding is being provided to local landowners to assist in timber removal, a critical first step to the prevention of further damage to communities. The primary focus of this project is to assist landowners in point protection for homes, barns, storage facilities, and other structures that have been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt post Hurricane Michael.
In consultation with private landowners, the Gulf Partnership is collaborating with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (Partners Program), the Florida Forestry Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Tall Timbers, and private forestry consultants to implement fuel reduction practices. Conservation activities include mechanical thinning and removal, mulching, cut/shear, rake and pile, on-site chipping and haul-off, timber salvage (logs), and prescribed fire.
Work began in late 2023 and once complete, this project will reduce fuel load on an anticipated 4,953 acres. The primary goals will be to reduce wildfire risk and fire behavior, point protection for homes and other personal property, and provide wildfire-resilient landscapes. Sites are evaluated for success and monitored at least three times over the course of ten years to ensure implemented practices are maintained to promote private land protection and community resilience. Lidar data will also be collected to demonstrate land changes over time once practices have been implemented.