NWF Volunteers Lend a Hand at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Volunteers restore coastal habitat on Gulf Coast

03-31-2011 // Craig Guillot
Volunteers at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

National Wildlife Federation organized a group of almost 20 volunteers on March 24-25, 2011 to help with some much-needed work at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park near Destin, Fla. Volunteers came from neighboring towns and as far away as California to mark trails, install signs and remove invasive plant species. The event is just one of a number of volunteer opportunities NWF is planning on the Gulf Coast this spring and summer.

Spread out over more than 1,600 acres along the Gulf of Mexico, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park features one of the most pristine natural coastal environments in the Florida Panhandle. Access through much of the park is limited to tram, cutting down on vehicular traffic. There are more than six miles of hiking trails and more than three miles of beach access. Visitors come on day trips or can stay overnight in the RV sites, 32 cabins and 22 tent sites.

Topsail is also home to rare coastal dune lakes (the only ones outside of Oregon and Africa) that provide habitat for freshwater fish, alligators and migratory birds. Some dunes in the park along the beach rise more than 25 feet tall. The park is also home to the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse, the flatwood salamander and the gopher tortoise along with deer and a few passing black bear.

It Takes a Village

Volunteers at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Maintaining such habitat and natural beauty takes work, and Park Service Specialist Jennifer Primm said like in many state parks, limited staffing makes it hard to handle some of the projects and upkeep.

"Volunteers in my opinion are the backbone of the Florida Park Service. They allow us to get in and tackle these projects and complete them, which otherwise could not be done without [them],” said Primm.

NWF volunteers marked existing trails with spray paint on trees every few hundred feet. Another group repaired and installed signs along the beach to warn visitors to stay out of the dunes. A third group also helped remove and clear Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), an invasive plant species that has been taking over some areas of the park. Titi, if left unchecked, blocks sunlight from such species as the pitcher plant.

“By removing the Titi, different species on the slope will once again be able to see sunlight and grow. Hopefully we’ll be able to return this affected area back to its natural state,” said Primm.

Living directly on the coast just a few miles from the park, local resident Bob Brooke understands the importance of preserving the natural habitat. Brooke had been visiting the area annually for more than 35 years and moved to the beach five years ago. He spent two days working on the beach, repairing signs and helping preserve a natural coastal habitat.

I’ve seen [these beaches] when there were very few, if any, high rises and no development for mile-long stretches. These state parks help preserve that,” said Brooke.

Jenna Peters, NWF Gulf Coast Volunteer Coordinator said that while there was an influx of volunteers on the coast during the height of the Gulf oil disaster, many lacked the training and opportunities to get involved. She said NWF is now trying to channel some of that volunteer enthusiasm to overall restoration projects along the Gulf Coast.

“Using the volunteer momentum in projects such as these can have a significant impact in restoration efforts,” said NWF Oil Spill Response Manager Crystal Webb. NWF is leading a number of other volunteer projects on the Gulf Coast in the spring and the summer of 2011.

“There is still an incredible amount of work that needs to be done in some of these habitats. We’re just starting to understand the long-term implications of the disaster, and I think volunteers will play an important role for years to come,” said Webb.



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