This carefully restored landscape, home to many rare species of plants and animals—some found nowhere else on earth—and its environmental riches are threatened on all sides by a maelstrom of competing commercial and residential demands. Preserving it for future generations will be an ongoing challenge.
Everybody wants a piece of the Apalachicola River. Fishermen want it to provide them with largemouth bass, striped bass, and catfish. Boaters want it to float their houseboats and river cruisers. The seafood industry wants it to feed the productive oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay. Naturalists want it to nurture waterfowl and endangered mussels and sturgeon. Communities along the entire river system—which stretches from northwest Georgia along the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers to the Florida border, where they merge underneath Lake Seminole and become the 106-mile-long (171km) Apalachicola—want it to provide clean drinking water, not to mention water for irrigation and hydropower.
Even in good years, these conflicting needs compete, and it doesn’t help that three different states (Georgia, Alabama, and Florida) are all involved. In a drought year (like 2007), it can be a fight to the death.
The Apalachicola, like most rivers, is threatened by pollution and by the impact of upriver dams on its natural seasonal levels. Plus, years of dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers has smothered shore habitats with dredged-up sand and gravel. The Corps’s intention was to improve the river for navigation, but few commercial barges really use the river, and there’s surprisingly little recreational boating either.
Featured in the film Ulee’s Gold, the lower Apalachicola—Florida’s largest floodplain—is an area known not only for bass fishing and quail hunting but for raising tupelo honey, a precious variety made by bees who feed around the increasingly rare tupelo tree. Today it encompasses several protected areas: Apalachicola National Forest, Torreya State Park, Tates Hell State Forest, the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area, and the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, which is run by the Nature Conservancy.
At the preserve, a 3.8-mile (6km) nature trail—aptly named the Garden of Eden trail—winds through a mix of rare habitats. First comes a recently restored long-leaf pine/wiregrass uplands (look for Florida yew trees, once of the world’s rarest evergreens, as well as the magnolias and oak-leaf hydrangea). Then you’ll pass through dramatic steephead ravines, a rare geological feature that nurtures unique species such as the Apalachicola dusky salamander. On the sand hills, in spring you’ll see wildflowers like trillium, wild ginger, and Gholson’s blazing star; in fall, toothed basil and lopsided Indian grass.
The trail ends on a panoramic bluff 135 feet (41m) above the Apalachicola River, where bald eagles, Mississippi kites, and swallowtail kites swoop overhead. It’s a breathtaking view of a landscape painstakingly preserved.