Friday, January 11, 2019


Florida Land Steward of the Year Award 2019

Ben and Louann Williams

Wetland Preserve LLC, Putnam County, FL
By Joe Vaughn, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and
Jeremy Olson, St. Johns River Water Management District

Louann and Ben Williams,
2019 Florida Land Stewards of the Year
photo by Karen Parker
Ben and Louann Williams have owned and managed the Wetland Preserve LLC since 2008.  This 3,725-acre property in Putnam County is composed of mesic flatwoods, bottomland forest, floodplain swamp, and sandhill.  It is adjacent to the Rice Creek Conservation Area which is owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District.  Numerous seepage streams originate along the western ridge of this property and flow eastward into Rice Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River.  The property’s inclusion in Florida Forever’s Etoniah/Cross Florida Greenway project area, as well as the North Florida Land Trust’s Ocala to Osceola (O2O) Conservation Corridor, demonstrates its regional significance.  Recognizing the land’s ecological importance, Ben and Louann are working with the North Florida Land Trust to actively pursue a conservation easement through the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to protect the property from future development. 

Thinned slash pine, photo by Karen Parker
When the Williams purchased the land, most of the upland areas were heavily planted in slash and loblolly pine.  Under the Williams’ management, there has been a gradual conversion to longleaf pine in appropriate areas during routine silvicultural operations.  Several of the slash and loblolly stands have been thinned from a basal area of 130 square feet per acre down to 55 square feet per acre.  This reduction of the pine canopy allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, stimulating the critically important native groundcover, an essential habitat for many wildlife species. In addition, hardwood encroachment on the sandhill has been addressed using a specific herbicide that targets woody species while preserving native groundcover.  Introduction of prescribed fire, plus aggressive programs to control feral hogs and invasive plant species, has further benefitted the natural communities and timber stands.

Ben and Louann have received assistance from the FWC, St Johns River WMD, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service and, in turn, have reciprocated by hosting landowner tours and participating in numerous outreach events.  Ben, Louann, and their daughter Ashley continue the outreach through their agritourism business, Custom River Excursions and Wetland Preserve LLC, and by hosting many field tours of their property for various civic organizations interested in wildlife and timber management.  Ashley has offered wildlife educational opportunities to local students by bringing reptile and amphibian specimens to schools, allowing the students to get up close to nature while learning to appreciate our native wildlife. The family also has been interviewed many times by the media and other organizations, and in every interview their love and respect for the land comes through loud and clear.

A very rare sighting of the rusty red salamander
(Psuedotriton montanus floridanus), photo by Jonathan Mays
Ben and Louann are keen observers of the wildlife and plants that depend on their preserve, and their management takes the needs of these species into account. The last time an FWC Landowner Assistance Program biologist was on the preserve, Louann apologized for their “overgrown” forest roads, stating “The turkey hens and their poults really use these roads for foraging (bugging habitat) during spring and we would hate to take that away from them, so we mow later in the year.”  The ability to understand animal behavior, and the willingness to accommodate it in their management decisions, speaks to the admirable land ethic this family possesses.   The Williams family’s desire to better understand their land and increase scientific knowledge of wildlife is also demonstrated by graciously allowing the FWC’s research staff to conduct surveys for uncommon, threatened or endangered species on their property over the last several years, providing critical population and location data on declining species. 

Louann and daughter Ashley on a prescribed burn,
photo by Joe Vaughn
Not only has stewardship of this ecologically important property greatly improved the timber resources, wildlife habitat, and water quality of Putnam County and the surrounding region, Ben, Louann and Ashley are also involved in multiple conservation endeavors.  They have been instrumental in developing the North Florida Prescribed Burn Association (PBA), Florida’s first landowner-led prescribed fire cooperative, organized to increase safe private land burning through training, experience, and networking.  They are dedicating much effort to expanding this concept in Florida by initiating and then taking a leadership role in the formation of this PBA and promoting this concept at landowner outreach events.  They also participate annually in the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services Operation Outdoor Freedom, where wounded veterans are given guided hunting opportunities on public and private properties.

Wetland Preserve is a certified Tree Farm and
Stewardship Forest, photo by Ben Williams

Their forest management is certified sustainable by the American Tree Farm System, and they are  enrolled and certified in the Forest Stewardship Program. They participate in the FWC’s Black Bear Stakeholder Group for their region.  Ben also represents the private sector on the Oyster Water Quality Task Force for the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.  And last, but not least, is their willingness to provide access to the Florida Trail through their property.  These are just some of the ways the William’s family highlights the critical role that private landowners play in the preservation of Florida’s natural resources and economy.      

Check out these videos on the property produced by the family:

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