Nokuse Plantation is a special place. Located on the Florida Panhandle, it's the state's largest tract of privately owned land at 54,000 acres. It includes a variety of ecosystems including longleaf pine, wiregrass, sandhills, flatwoods, savannahs, pitcher plant bogs/seepage slopes, steephead ravines, blackwater creeks, ephemeral wetlands and the Choctawhatchee River floodplain swamp.
It hasn't always harbored such diversity of life. When M.C. Davis first took ownership, much of it had been logged or used for agriculture. But he is protecting and restoring the space little by little, year by year, thinking 300 years into the future as he and his team make decisions.
How he arrived at this place at the end of his life is even more interesting. "I grew up with five other people in 300 square feet in a wore-out trailer on a dirt road," Davis told NPR. "I was trying to get out to town and make some money."
And make it he did, hustling and gambling from age 16 to 30. Eventually he started investing in land and mineral rights, and he made millions upon millions.
And then he became a self-described treehugger.
"I spent half my life doing that [making money], and I spent the other half getting back in the woods, you know?" says Davis.
His epiphany came after seeing a presentation about black bears in Florida (which he didn't even know existed at the time). He started reading about environmental issues and his path became clear.
A gopher tortoise at Nokuse Plantation. (Photo: Nokuse Plantation)
He bought most of the land from timber companies, spending $90 million in total. In 2005, he and his team by planting 8 million longleaf pines, the original trees that forested most of the land. It's a huge restoration project that will take centuries, but that's what Davis is planning for. He says he's looking 300 years into the future — and that length of time is all part of the plan.
Davis, of course, doesn't have that long. At 70, he has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, with limited time left. But even that he calls "nature's way."
"If there's such a thing as being perpetual — this will be here. No matter how stupid our species gets and how much it degrades this, it will start over. But I'm hoping that we're capable of leaving some huge biological warehouses that — if and when our country fails, and all of them do sooner or later — that hopefully the impacts wouldn't be total. That nature just doesn't have to start from scratch," Davis told NPR.
The work he has done means this area isn't merely starting from scratch, with the longleaf pine trees already 20 feet tall. And with the trees come plenty of other life, too.
Nokuse has become a valuable home to the threatened gopher tortoise, which was eaten for meat and has been otherwise decimated by habitat loss. Now, the beleaguered population (which gets trapped in its underground burrows when buildings go up on top of its home) is growing at Nokuse as tortoises are brought from all over the area when new construction goes up. It's not just the tortoises that benefit either, according to the Nokuse site, "The gopher tortoise is called a keystone species because these burrows serve as important refuge for more than 360 others animals (vertebrates and invertebrates) in the longleaf pine community."
If you go to the plantation's Facebook page, you'll see there are plenty of other threatened and endangered animals that call the area home, including coyote, quail, plenty of birds, tree frogs and salamanders, bats, a long list of plants, and the Florida black bear, Davis' initial inspiration.
Public access to the land is limited, but access is possible via the Florida National Scenic Trail, which includes about 14 miles between State Road 81 and U.S. Highway 331. Thousands of Florida schoolchildren come through the plantation's education center every year — a project that will continue to be funded by the money Davis plans to leave behind.
Editor's note, July 13, 2015: The plantation's Facebook page has been updated with this information:
"In memory of Nokuse Plantation's founder, MC Davis, who lost his battle with lung cancer this Saturday, July 11, 2015. Mr. Davis was a visionary who inspired so many conservationists. Our goal is to preserve his legacy and keep his "300-year project" going."
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