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Saturiwa Conservation Area Preserves History, Wildlife

This wetland cypress pond on Saturiwa Conservation Area is valuable amphibian and aquatic bird habit

An American river otter in the St. Johns River is an indicator of good water quallity. Carnivorous pitcher plants flourish after a prescribed burn. A bald eagle fishes the St. Johns River. The sun sets on the Adam's dock over the St. Johns River.

You can see it all in Saturiwa Conservation Area: crawling with wildlife, including many rare and protected species, rich in ecological diversity and artifacts illustrating Florida’s dramatic history. Mike Adams acquired this 94-acre family homestead on the St. Johns River in southwest St. Johns County in 1989 and named Saturiwa after a powerful Indian chief of the now extinct Timucua Tribe.

Since then he has worked diligently to restore the former longleaf pine forest after hundreds of years of resource exploitation, and in the process has become a dedicated conservation advocate to community members, forest owners and schoolchildren.

Mike Adams acquired his 94-acre family homestead in 1989.Biologist by trade, in the early 1990s Adams began giving ecological field tours on Saturiwa to groups such as the local Audubon bird watching outing; then he gave a nature tour to a local garden club and later to a civic group. But it was taking his son’s fourth-grade science class on a night-time astronomy field trip in 2010 that awakened a passion for teaching about the beauty and benefits of north Florida’s diverse ecosystems. Now he routinely conducts tours of Saturiwa throughout the year, sharing his knowledge of its history, science and regional natural and cultural resources management to various groups.

A 30-minute trek through Saturiwa begins in a former pine plantation that transitions into natural pine flatwoods, where Adams discovered and protects relic longleaf pine trees for natural regeneration seed stock. He has built brush piles from selective thinning slash and debris to create wildlife concealment habitat, built bird boxes that dot random trees, and a small area remains blackened by a recent prescribed burn he did himself. A state of Florida certified burner, he frequently uses prescribed burns to eliminate invasive plants, reduce the understory, and allow the fire-dependent ecosystem to regenerate. “The native tribes burned it all the time; as did the European settlers,” he said.

Remnants of the naval stores industry clay Herty cups he maintains attached to trees, artifacts from 19th century turpentine camps established to collect sap from the longleaf pine. Visitors can see water oak, loblolly, sweet gum and red maple before stepping onto an elevated boardwalk wanderingthrough hardwood swamp with massive cypress, black gum, hickory and ash. The edge of his property opens onto the St. Johns River, designated an American Heritage River in 2003. The tour concludes on a small dock, where in the summer you can spot manatees near the shoreline at the edge of the lush eel grass beds, American river otters swimming and Osprey diving for fish. In the wintertime bald eagles are nesting and hundreds of migrating ducks and coots can be seen floating in large groups on the river surface. Colonial naturalist William Bartram explored this river and chronicled the resources he encountered in 1774. Pioneer ornithologist, John James Audubon drew birds he collected in this area in 1831-32.

Much of Adams work was accomplished through technical and financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In 2010 he began participating in the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helped him undertake restoration activities such as prescribed burns, forest thinning and creating wildlife habitat. NRCS District Conservationist George Johnson said that Adams conservation practices goes far beyond his property boundaries. “Everyone in this area benefits from what he does: from developing and restoring wildlife habitat to improving air and water quality, particularly adjacent to the St. Johns River,” he said.

Adams success can be seen as the animals and plants return that make these ecosystems home. The deer, wild turkey population and quail population flourishes while many species of woodpeckers and birds of prey fly through the now-open understory. The rare carnivorous pitcher plants cluster in recently prescribed burned areas and gopher tortoise burrows are tucked away into the forest floor.

In 2012 Adams completed a 23-year research project with self-publication of an ecological field and natural history of Saturiwa, which he provides to visitors as part of his community outreach and education.

“It’s another world out here,” he said. Adams favorite tour of all is taking third graders out on field tours. “When I tell them that the Osprey has a special eyelid that closes when it dives into the water to snatch up a fish, then carries the fish in its claws like a torpedo to reduce wind resistance while flying, the wonder can be seen in their eyes, I love it!” he said.

Do you want help conserving resources on your farm or ranch? The first step is to develop a conservation plan with a NRCS specialist. Contact your local field office in Florida.