Environmental Review Toolkit
Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

Maintaining Native Ecosystems on Florida's Kate Ireland Parkway

Signage along the Kate Ireland Parkway indicating prescribed burning activities.
Signage along the Kate Ireland Parkway indicating prescribed burning activities.

The Kate Ireland Parkway is a 9-mile stretch of US-319 (Florida SR-61) that runs from Tallahassee, Florida, to the Florida-Georgia border. In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recognized the ecological importance of a public-private partnership that crafted a unique landscape and maintenance plan for the Kate Ireland Parkway. This partnership pioneered the use of prescribed burning on the highway median to conserve and restore the native longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem.

Longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystems are one of the most densely diverse environments in North America. As many as 40 plant species, including forbs, grasses, and woody plants, can grow within a 10-square-foot area. Many of these species depend on frequent fires to thin the tree canopy and provide ground-level sunlight. Ongoing development in longleaf pine-wiregrass areas in the Red Hills region of northern Florida and southern Georgia has threatened these plants' survival.

In 1992, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) planned to widen US Highway 319 (SR-61). US-319 winds through Tallahassee and the Red Hills region of the Florida Panhandle. In order to widen the road, FDOT needed to acquire additional right of way, largely from the owner of a single historic plantation. The owner of Foshallee Plantation, Miss Kate Ireland, agreed to donate enough right-of-way and scenic easements to construct four traffic lanes — as long as FDOT agreed to preserve the rural character of the corridor. Miss Ireland stipulated that the Florida Division of Forestry should use prescribed burns to maintain the donated right of way. Prescribed burning replicates the effects of frequent natural fires that allow longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystems to survive. The controlled fires help to cycle nutrients, control invasive species, and reduce the chances of destructive wildfires. Prescribed burn maintenance has been used on Foshallee Plantation and other Red Hills plantations for generations.

Firefighter taking part in the prescribed burn.
Firefighter taking part in the prescribed burn.

After FDOT completed the highway widening project in 2001, Miss Ireland donated an additional $300,000 to landscape the median with native oak hammock and longleaf pine-wiregrass plants. This donation allowed FDOT and the Florida Division of Forestry to add valuable habitat for threatened plants.

FDOT brought together a mix of public and private entities to analyze the planting strategy for the median and the safety strategy for the prescribed burns. Partner agencies included the Tall Timbers Research Center, a local nonprofit devoted to researching the native ecology of the Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass system; the Florida Division of Forestry; the Florida Highway Patrol; and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Tall Timbers Research Center and the Division of Forestry developed a plan to plant a mixture of native oak hammock, longleaf pine-wiregrass, and wetland plants. This mixture of ecosystems replicated the Kate Ireland Parkway's surrounding environment and was highly suitable for prescribed burn maintenance. In order to ensure public safety during prescribed burns, the Division of Forestry planned to carefully manage the plant fuels used in the burns. In conjunction with the Florida Highway Patrol FDOT developed a safety plan to address possible smoke-related visibility problems and other hazardous conditions.

View along the Kate Ireland Parkway.
View along the Kate Ireland Parkway.

As of February 2009, seven miles of the Kate Ireland Parkway project were complete. The highway median and scenic easements surrounding the highway provide an opportunity for motorists to experience the beauty and diversity of the Red Hills landscape. The median also provides a haven for the plants of the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem.

The success of the Kate Ireland Parkway project led FDOT to consider a wider application of prescribed burning on right-of-way vegetation. This public-private partnership may soon lead to a more sustainable and less energy intensive practice of highway maintenance across Florida and the United States.

For more information, contact Jeff Caster, Jeff.Caster@dot.state.fl.us.

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