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News Release

Forester Restores Stands, Builds on Stewardship

Chakesha Harvey

Johnny Johnson didn’t know anything about managing a forest when he bought a tree farm in Levy County. But he learned quick. He had to. That was in 2008. Undergrowth spiraled 20 feet up into crowded tree stands next to clear-cut swaths with nothing between to harbor wildlife on the 463-acre property. 

The Florida Forest Service came out and explained that the undergrowth was so thick that using fire to remove it would burn the entire forest down. They advised him to visit USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Center (NRCS) to get help.  “My goal was to maintain it for wildlife and beauty. I wanted to sustainably cut and replant and be able to hunt,” Johnny said, adding that he had named the farm Legacy Timber because he wants to leave it to his daughters.  He went to the NRCS service center and developed a conservation plan that would meet those goals with the district conservationist. Beginning in 2009, financial assistance from a suite of NRCS programs helped Johnny with brush management, install firebreaks, and do prescribed burns.

Determined to do the work himself, Johnny went out and bought a subcompact tractor.  Every morning at dawn he packed a cooler with a sandwich and frozen water, then bushwhacked the undergrowth and mowed between tree rows until the last light.  He ended up installing armor plating underneath the tractor so he wouldn’t tear up the brake lines and hoses.  

The labor was cathartic. The hard work outdoors helped him rehabilitate from a bicycle wreck that completely separated his left shoulder and required his right wrist to be fused, ending his career as a pediatric dentist. In 2011 the Florida Forestry Association awarded him certification for the outstanding management of his property under the Florida Forest Stewardship Program. Three years ago, Johnny got the undergrowth down to where he could do prescribed burns. “I enjoy it, you can see immediate benefits with prescribed fire,” he said.  “The wildlife immediately endorses my efforts by going into burned areas while they are still smoldering to begin eating natural forbs and tender plants/grasses.”

In 2013, Johnny signed up for a five-year Conservation Stewardship Program contract to plant pollinator habitat. He has been planting wildflowers and flowering shrubs and trees around the edges of the tree farm. In 2018 he extended his contract for another five years for planting pollinator habitat and creating snags for wildlife habitat. Johnny receives annual payments to maintain his existing conservation activities, in addition to implementing enhancements.

“When the program came along, it was a natural for me.  I was already encouraging native trees and shrubs to grow by keeping the brush low around those areas.  With the huge drop in pollinators in the country, and their importance to farmers for their crops, this allows me to plant more beautiful flowers to help the agricultural producers here,” he said.

Johnny said the sweat equity has paid off. “The forest is back in harmony with Mother Nature: I don’t clear cut, I have different aged stands, and since I’ve been mowing and using prescribed fire, the trees are growing much faster,” he said. He sees more deer and turkey, and he discovered quail on the property for the first time this year. “I’m thrilled to watch them walk in single file, peeping. When you get quail, you know you are managing appropriately. It is the milestone of a healthy forest,” Johnny said. 

NRCS District Conservationist Amy Smith said Johnny is a model steward of his land. “He always goes above and beyond to ensure his property is in pristine condition and encourages surrounding landowners to work with natural resource agencies to improve their properties,” she said.

According to the Florida Forestry Association, forests cover about half of Florida’s land area, more than 17 million acres, with most of it privately owned working forests. The forestry industry employs more than 124,000 people and infuses $25 billion into the state’s economy.

Do you want help managing your forest or learn more about the Conservation Stewardship Program? Contact your local USDA Service Center.