A partnership with multiple conservation agencies is positioning Mississippi State University's Forest and Wildlife Research Center to manage and positively impact coastal forestland for teaching, research and conservation of this vital ecosystem.
The 14,000 acres of bottomland hardwood and upland forests—part of the Coastal Headwaters Protection Initiative—are in Harrison County along the Wolf River, which distributes into the Bay of Saint Louis. The acquisition is made possible through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Gulf Environment Benefit Fund, Mississippi Forestry Commission, U.S. Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain.
Wes Burger, dean of MSU's College of Forest Resources and FWRC director, said the partnership will have a substantial impact on coastal conservation.
"Acquisition, restoration and protection of this land in perpetuity will add substantively to conservation of coastal ecosystems and will benefit water quality and quantity while protecting riverine, terrestrial, coastal and marine systems on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," he said.
Burger said FWRC will manage the land under a multi-resource forest stewardship plan, which includes conservation and environmental protection of hardwood bottomlands, restoration of longleaf pine habitats and management of upland pine working forestlands.
"MSU will manage this property as a forest research station and demonstration site for longleaf pine restoration, while conserving over 100 miles of riparian buffers along both banks of the Wolf River and its tributaries. The tract is a regional conservation priority for coastal resilience, flood protection and storm hazard abatement; contains high-quality habitat for the threatened Gopher tortoise and other species of concern and is in a key geography for longleaf pine restoration. Additionally, future income from this working school forest will support forest operations and management, site-specific research, K-12 environmental education and outreach and scholarships for local natural resource students enrolled in CFR degree programs," Burger said.
Chris Wells is executive director of the MDEQ, which focuses on conserving and improving Mississippi's environment and serves as the consulting agency for GEBF's funded projects in the state. He said the Wolf River tract is an ideal target for conservation.
"When we can conserve natural habitat, provide buffers and restore elements of the forest to its natural state, it provides numerous water quality benefits downstream," he said.
The 1996 MSU chemical engineering alumnus said MSU's CFR is an ideal partner.
"Working with MSU's College of Forest Resources, in particular, is of great benefit because it allows CFR to do what it does well in terms of forest and wildlife management and research while accomplishing the goals we have as an agency in terms of water quality and coastal restoration. Having Mississippi State as the expert in forest land management is a perfect fit," he said.
The Mississippi Forestry Commission assisted with the acquisition through the U.S. Forest Service Federal Forest Legacy program. Russell Bozeman, state forester and MFC director, added that the restoration of longleaf pine in the area will add to the state's forested ecosystem."We are honored to partner with Mississippi State, other state agencies and conservation organizations to see restoration of longleaf pine forest, which enhances habitat for wildlife, protects water quality and produces high-quality timber," Bozeman said. "In a regional landscape that was once defined by longleaf pine, restoration of this ecosystem advances our mission of protection, management and information."
Alex Littlejohn, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Mississippi, said the organization has a long legacy of helping to conserve the headwaters of Mississippi's coastal rivers and is thrilled to partner with MSU as a leader in applied conservation and land management.
"With this property, MSU will be able to uniquely showcase how conservation and land management can go hand-in-hand across a large landscape," he said.
The MSU CFR alumnus who received his bachelor's and master's in wildlife ecology, in 2010 and 2012, respectively, also said the acquisition will have a significant impact on current and future MSU students.
"It's one thing to read about land management and habitat restoration in a textbook. It's quite another experience when students can touch, feel and see that management being put into motion right in front of them. That's the platform this property will now provide," he said.