Sandhill Restoration Project

Image of sandhill habitat

Sandhill Restoration Project FAQs

Rainbow Springs State Park

Rainbow Springs State Park has taken a step toward restoring two areas of sandhill within the park. A 38-acre area has been “thinned,” meaning there has been a partial harvest of hardwoods and some pines. All sand pines and some hardwoods also have been harvested from an additional 35-acre area, while hardwoods and pines naturally found in sandhill and upland pine communities will remain. This allows for the recovery of wildflowers, grasses and other native ground cover typically found in a sandhill. We will plant longleaf pines and use prescribed fire to manage the natural community.

The benefits of this resource management technique will include restoring the appropriate overstory and groundcover to the sandhill ecosystem. The initial timber harvest strategy is one part of an ongoing multi-year restoration process for sites within the park affected by past forestry activities, fire exclusion, invasive exotic plant invasion and other practices that alter natural communities.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the purpose of the project?

Rainbow Springs State Park will be utilizing timber harvest as a resource management tool to assist with ecosystem restoration of two areas of sandhill within the park. 

The purpose of this harvest will be to:

  1. Remove the flammable sand pine plantation and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the sand pine plantation areas and surrounding communities.
  2. Facilitate ongoing efforts to restore longleaf pine habitat in the park. 
  3. Expedite progress in these areas that will reduce the amount of time before these areas are restored to the desired conditions.
  4. Improve wildlife habitat, particularly for sandhill dwellers like the imperiled gopher tortoise.

Where in the park will this occur?

The partial harvest, or thinning, will occur off of 180th Avenue Road adjacent to and just south of the high school. The sand pine harvest will occur farther south adjacent to the park’s tubing entrance on 180th Avenue Road.

What type/species of tree are being removed and what type/species of tree are being replanted?

The harvest will remove a mixture of sand pine, some loblolly pine, laurel oaks, water oaks, sweet gums and other hardwoods not found in a sandhill. In areas that receive follow-up planting as a part of the restoration project, the tree planting will be longleaf pine. In addition, native groundcover plants including wiregrass will be planted if they are lacking.

How will this impact my experience as a visitor?

The areas will look different at each stage of the restoration process, including before, during and after the timber harvest. During the harvest, visitors may see heavy logging equipment. The equipment can be noisy while being operated. Harvest will occur in the tubing off-season so tubing operations will not be impacted by harvesting equipment. In the thinned harvest area, visitors will see a more open forest and tree canopy, reduced stature of shrubs and some additional woody debris on the ground. After harvest of the sand pine harvest area, passersby will notice a very open site with ongoing restoration activities of prescribed fire followed by planting of longleaf pines and groundcover plants.

What happens after the harvesting/thinning? What will the site(s) look like and for how long?

Post-harvest sites will have a disturbed appearance for a period of time. This can surprise visitors who haven’t had previous exposure to this common land management practice.  The tree canopy will be more open, or, in the case of the sand pine harvest, gone completely. There will be woody debris such as branches on the ground. Shrubs on site will be reduced in stature, and there will be some soil disturbance. On the site of the thinning harvest, the forest will be more open and resemble the forest structure of a sandhill. As the site recovers, the visual effect of the harvest will be less obvious. How long this impact is visible to an observer will depend to some degree on their knowledge of forests and their knowledge of the specific site. To casual visitors, the impact may be undetectable within a year. To experts, the impact will be visible for multiple years. The full-harvest sand pine area obviously will look completely different for the foreseeable future. This is because a tall stand of trees will become an open space with a few remaining turkey oaks, sand post oaks, other species and scattered woody debris. Over time and after tree planting, a shorter, less dense stand of longleaf pine trees will appear.

What’s the plan for the restoration of the site(s)? Will prescribed fire be necessary?

The overall goal for the harvested areas is to return them to a condition in which the ongoing use of prescribed fire and site-appropriate species restoration results in a healthy example of a sandhill community. The plan for restoration of the thinning site is to begin using prescribed fire as a management tool as soon as weather and fuel conditions permit (within 12 to 18 months). This will consume some of the tree tops and other woody debris left by the harvest operation. The thinning site will be integrated into the burn regimen for the surrounding sandhill areas within the park. The full-harvest area will need more extensive treatment following harvest. This may include burning in the near term, and planting of longleaf pine and wiregrass after prescribed fire. The exact timing of each treatment will depend on the weather and when the harvest is completed. Both harvest sites may need herbicide application to control hardwood resprouting. The overall process for longleaf pine planting could occur within 24 months.

Were any alternatives considered?

Park and district staff reviewed alternate management strategies (fire only, thinning versus full stand harvest, no action, etc.) prior to selecting the planned timber harvest methods as the most appropriate resource management tool for this situation. Because sand pine regularly reseeds itself and is very flammable under the right conditions, staff determined that a complete harvest of sand pine in the initial areas is the only feasible option. In the areas planned for the thinning harvest, it was determined that thinning is the quickest way to return the sandhill to desired future maintenance condition while still maintaining the forest aesthetic. The timber harvest strategy is one part of an ongoing multi-year restoration process for these sites within the park affected by past forestry practices, fire exclusion and invasive exotic plants, particularly cogongrass.

Will the revenue go back into the management of the park?

All revenue generated as a result of the harvest will go back to the park to offset the ongoing costs of resource management activities on the site.

Did the park consider all of the priorities of the park? Why spend so much of limited funds on restoring sandhill? 

The mission of the Florida Park Service is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources. Restoration and management of the natural communities including sandhill are important priorities of Rainbow Springs State Park. The park also fulfills other components of its mission by protecting and managing its cultural resources and providing a diversity of resource-based recreation. The timber harvested during the restoration earns revenue for the park. Funding for the timber harvest and restoration has not come from the park budget.

Did the park consider the current experience of park visitors? Were park visitors informed in advance and given an opportunity to comment?

Park management reached out to the adjacent landowners in Sateke Village and others, the park's citizen support organization, the manager of the tubing operation, the Mayor of Dunnellon, and park visitors utilizing the tram road. A communication plan with the project description and frequently asked questions was prepared and shared during outreach.

Did the park consider leaving buffers around park facilities? 

A sand pine buffer is not considered a desirable buffer option because it is extremely flammable. Sand pine also quickly invades sandhills, and would need to be removed again in the future.

Did the park consider the significant cost in funds and labor for the many years of controlling invasive species and that restoring sandhill and longleaf pine may never be successful?

The park has already been controlling cogongrass and other species of invasive exotic plants in this area for a number of years and has reduced their density. Control of invasive species will continue during the restoration and afterwards. Regardless of the restoration efforts, the sand pine needed to be removed due to its highly flammable nature and its proximity to Sateke village and the school. The restoration has a high probability of success because many components of sandhill still exist on the site including native groundcover species and gopher tortoises.

Did the park consider the immediate impact on the loss of wildlife habitat, loss of acorns that deer, turkeys, fox squirrels and many other species depend on, and that visitors enjoy seeing wildlife? Doesn't eliminating the entire understory remove all habitat for songbirds and other species that require the understory habitat for nesting, cover and food? 

Wildlife impacts were considered. Part of the reason for the restoration is to restore the habitat for imperiled species like the gopher tortoise and the indigo snake that occur on site. The original natural community of the clearcut site was sandhill and not sand pine scrub. The species of animals and plants that occupy sandhill were dying out in the dense sand pine canopy. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the number of active gopher tortoise burrows had declined. The gopher tortoise is a state threatened species and the indigo snake that uses its burrow is a federally threatened species. When the site is replanted it will be a much better habitat for fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and also birds found in sandhills such as kestrels, red-headed woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches and Bachman's sparrows.

Did the park consider that the existing habitat was more productive for both wildlife and recreation than sandhill?

The existing sand pine plantation and laurel oak that invaded the sandhill habitat was actually not more productive for wildlife. The dense mat of sand pine needles on the ground suppressed most of the plants that wildlife need for food. Visitors will have a much better chance to see wildlife in a habitat that supports them. Also, it is easier and more pleasant to walk through a sandhill than to try to walk through a sand pine plantation.

As stated in the plan, did the park consider that the management goals of restoring sandhill will not be realized for as many as 50 years and may fail, and planting long leaf pine will be delayed for three years to allow removal of invasive plants, further extending the future goal? How can the park be confident that future managers won't abandon the project due to cost, staffing, changing management, disease, or inability to control invasive plants? 

Park management is guided by the park's management plan. Sandhill restoration continues to be a goal within the management plan to guide future managers. Longleaf pine will be planted within two years. Many of the habitat benefits of restoration will be realized within a few years of planting the longleaf. The native groundcover of grasses and legumes will start growing quickly because many of them are still present but in an extremely suppressed state under the sand pine. The growth of native grasses and wildflowers will almost immediately benefit both wildlife and management goals. The ground cover will allow the use of prescribed fire as a management tool. This is not very viable with sand pine because fire in sand pine is very intense and consumes the entire tree. Removal of the sand pine also benefits the safety of the surrounding human communities by removing this fuel which burns so intensely.

Did the park consider that many resource managers consider replacing one natural community with another as not always justified since parks have multiple missions including visitor experience, wildlife, cost, other priorities, etc.?

These factors were considered in planning the restoration. Restoration at Rainbow is not replacing one natural community with another. Rather the restoration is releasing the underlying existing natural community. The restoration is an important part of the park’s mission. It benefits threatened and endangered wildlife populations, does not utilize money that would have been used for other park operations, promotes safety of the surrounding neighborhoods and will provide a more enjoyable visitor experience.

Did the park consider that such a controversial project may have been better suited to larger properties, and not in such a small, high-profile, recreation-intensive park as Rainbow Springs? Cutting 10% of the entire park to further a single purpose is highly questionable. Visitors come from all over the world to see the Rainbow River. Should they wait 50 years to see the management goal of restoring sandhill?

Sandhill habitat is increasingly rare in Marion County due to the rapid development that is occurring. This means that it is even more important for the park to preserve and restore the sandhill that they manage. Visitors will see results long before 50 years. After the first prescribed fire, visitors may notice wildflowers and grasses blooming. Once the longleaf pines are planted, their growth should be clearly visible within less than five years. The sand pine acres that were harvested represent less than 3% of the park’s acres and the hardwood harvest in the longleaf stand brings the total to 5% of the park’s acres.

An interesting irony is that while removing sand pine is a management goal in this case, a short distance away in Ocala National Forest, one of the significant features is that the Ocala forest supports the largest sand pine community in America.

A big difference between the Ocala National Forest (ONF) and Rainbow Springs State Park is that sand pine does not occur historically or naturally at Rainbow Springs. There is no scrub natural community at Rainbow Springs. The ONF, however, has large areas of the scrub natural community that has sand pine as an important component. The ONF also has large areas of sandhill that do not have sand pine as a naturally occurring component. Sand pine is not part of the sandhill natural community. The harvested sand pines at Rainbow Springs were planted after the original sandhill was logged out before the park acquired the property and are not a true sand pine scrub. It was a commercial plantation. It lacked most of the scrub species that make the ONF a special place for naturally occurring scrub habitat.

If the management goal of the park is to restore natural communities, then why not remove all the azaleas and non- native species throughout the park?

The park has an ongoing program of removing invasive exotic plants throughout the park. New plantings in the park use Florida natives. In addition, the area around the head spring and gardens was highly disturbed by historic phosphate mining. The soil chemistry and profile there have been changed and restoration would be much more difficult. The garden is part of the historic roadside attraction and as such it is managed as part of the cultural resource.

Consider stopping the cutting immediately. It is a questionable project in the wrong place that has not been adequately justified to the public. Since the damage is done, consider using the existing restoration area as a demonstration area and evaluate the progress. Wouldn't this be a reasonable compromise?

Monitoring occurred before the timber harvest and monitoring will continue afterwards. Due to the very flammable nature of both sand pine and cogongrass, this is not considered a demonstration area. Cogongrass control and sand pine removal are planned for the safety and ecological health of the area.

Why wasn’t a buffer left along 180th Avenue Road?

If sand pines were left as a buffer, they would make prescribed fire more dangerous and difficult. The trees would be capable of torching during a prescribed fire, make the fire line less secure and easier to spark across, and present a hazard to staff on the fire line and possibly passing traffic. A sand pine buffer would also quickly reseed into the restoration site. There they would compete with longleaf pine and would need to be removed in the future. If laurel oaks are left as a buffer, they provide a seed source to re-invade the sandhill, and they suppress the sandhill native groundcover that provides a food source for gopher tortoises and other species.

Will longleaf pines be logged in the future?

There is no plan to harvest longleaf pines in the future. The park’s unit management plan states that a goal is to restore the sandhill in the areas impacted by sand pine. Part of the restoration activity will be planting longleaf pines.

How did the City of Dunnellon Tree Ordinance affect the timber harvest?

We were unaware that Dunnellon’s tree ordinance applied to a silvicultural operation. However, in reviewing it, Rainbow Springs State Park complied with the intent of the tree ordinance. The sand pine harvest and restoration are mentioned in the park's 2005 Unit Management Plan Amendment. Only the sand pine harvest is located within Dunnellon’s City limits, map below. Review of Ordinance 2019-06 Tree Ordinance Amendment indicates that:

“(11) All trees planted specifically for silvicultural purposes shall be exempt from the provisions of this article provided the property owner can provide documentation to the city evidencing that:

a. The property is registered as a silvicultural site with the division of forestry; and

b. Trees of typical harvestable size and type exist on the property which are capable of being harvested for income and that the property owner has, or intends to, generate income from the harvested trees.”

We consulted with the Florida Forest Service (FFS) and they said that they do not have registered silvicultural sites. They do have a process for private landowners who want an agricultural tax exemption, but this does not apply to state lands which are already tax exempt. Private landowners can work with the FFS to participate in the American Tree Farm or Forest Stewardship Program.

The sand pine timber harvest occurred in an area of the park that had been planted for timber management before the park acquired it. The trees were of a harvestable size, and the park has generated income from this harvest. This harvest and the restoration have been planned since the park acquired the property. They are described in the 2005 Amendment to the park’s unit management plan. The area will be replanted with longleaf pine trees.

What is phase two? Do you have specific boundaries, plans and a time frame? How many phases are there?

The next phase is dependent on obtaining more control of the cogongrass in the sand pine plantations farther south. That will guide our timing and boundaries.

Why were larger oaks harvested? Was that by design or did the loggers make that call?

The species of oaks to be harvested were decided based on which species should occur in sandhill. This was a planned part of the harvest and was determined by biological staff, not the logger. Laurel oaks for example are not part of a fire-maintained sandhill and were removed. Some of these were particularly large because they grow very rapidly. Hardwoods protected from harvest were marked as leave trees prior to the harvest.

Where did the harvested wood go? 

Timber was marketed based on the timber product: woody biomass and pine roundwood. Entities that purchased the were Southern Fuelwood, Deerhaven Renewable Generating and Priority Service Group.

What was the logging company and the trucking company used?

The timber removal was competitively bid to logging companies. The highest bidder, Columbia Timber Company, paid the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service for the removed timber.

For additional information:

Please contact Park Services Specialist Michael Good.