When people think of national forests, they probably think of vast wilderness areas in the western United States — many western states are comprised of large acreages of federally owned land. However, many national forests are located east of the Mississippi, and Florida is fortunate to have three within our borders.
National forests are not to be confused with our national parks. The latter are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management within the U.S. Department of Interior. National parks are primarily designated for conservation to protect plant and animal species or preserve a unique or pristine landscape. There are 61 national parks and include the most famous — Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Acadia.
National forests are under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These lands are primarily forests and woodlands and were set aside to provide a timber supply for the United States as well as to conserve our natural resources. The national forests were created by the Land Revision Act of 1891 under then President Benjamin Harrison. There are currently 155 national forests totaling in excess of 190 million acres, or 8.5% of the land area of the United States.
The 1911 Works Act authorized federal purchase of privately owned and/or cutover forests to protect streams. This Act resulted in the purchase of 1.2 million acres in Florida and created the Apalachicola, Osceola and Ocala National Forests.
The Apalachicola is the largest of the three, with 632,890 acres located south and west of Tallahassee. It is characterized by longleaf pine forests, freshwater springs, rivers and lakes. Lake Talquin, just west of Tallahassee, offers fishing, boating and camping opportunities. Other features include Leon Sinks, where hiking trails lead to a series of sinkholes; Camel Lake; Silver Lake Recreation Area; and the Apalachicola River. The forest offers over 80 miles of hiking trails, kayaking, canoeing and camping.
The Osceola National Forest is the smallest of the three at 190,000 acres. It is located between Lake City and Jacksonville along both sides of Interstate 10. Ocean Pond is a two-mile wide lake with sandy beaches, a boat ramp and camp sites. The Florida Birding Trail and the National Scenic Trail pass through the Osceola National Forest. Equestrian trails and camping are also available.
The Ocala National Forest is located along State Road 40 east of Ocala, about an hour from Citrus County. It totals 430,000 acres and is home to the largest sand pine forest in the world. Lake George is 72 square miles in the eastern part of the forest along the St. Johns River and offers excellent fishing. The Ocala National Forest is known for its several crystal-clear freshwater springs, including Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs. Another spring, Salt Springs, earns it name from the dissolved potassium, magnesium and sodium found in the water. The Ocala National Forest also offers camping, horseback riding, hiking, off-road biking, swimming and boating in the numerous lakes within the forest, off-road vehicle trails and hunting.
We are blessed to have over 1 million acres of federally owned national forest land available for a myriad of recreational opportunities. In this time of social distancing, these forests provide a great way to get away and enjoy our natural surroundings, get exercise and fresh air, and spend quality time with our family.
Eric H. Hoyer is a certified arborist, a certified forester, a registered consulting arborist and a qualified tree risk assessor with Natural Resource Planning Services Inc. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.