Every day, the news from Washington D.C. causes me to look around for signs that there are positive things being done to protect and preserve wild lands, endangered habitats and threatened species. Although my articles here focus primarily on how that issue plays out in California and the American West, the United States is a big place, and I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of it. In thinking of what there is that’s positive in the world of environmental action, I thought about a visit I made to a remarkable place in the far northeastern corner of Florida: The White Oak Conservation.
Here’s where we’re going, north of Jacksonville, near the border with Georgia, the meandering dotted line defined by the St. Marys River.
That place name, “Florida,” certainly evokes some set of images in your mind: It may be Orlando and its theme park empires, Everglades National Park, the hotels and mansions of Miami Beach, or the broad, sandy shores of Captiva and Sanibel Islands and the Florida Keys.
White Oak Conservation is none of those.
Once you’re a few miles inland from the nearly continuous development that lines Florida’s east coast, you’re in a country that not many tourists know (with the exception of Orlando). A low, level plain not far above sea level is covered with pines, oaks and winding, slow-flowing rivers. The forests are dotted with lakes, ponds and swamps. In many of the areas, as on the Florida-Georgia border formed by the St. Mary’s River, there were once large expanses of cypress, now much-reduced by logging from the 18th Century onward. You’ll see immense old oaks hung with Spanish Moss, like this one
It’s hot and humid, and the area even became a center for growing rice, introduced from Asia. There are still swamps, and recreation abounds, including canoeing and kayaking.
The large, unpopulated areas once provided rich resources for the lumber and paper industries, including the largest paper company in the U.S., Gilman Paper Company. The family-owned business held 7,400 acres of land, used for timber, raising horses and corporate marketing and recreation.
The second generation of the Gilman family transformed White Oak into a center for the protection of endangered and threatened animals, and built an extensive conference center that hosts international events focused on their three fields of interest: arts and culture, conservation and the environment, and public policy. Because I was there in my job as a corporate event producer, I have plenty of photos of the excellent facilities I could show you.
But that’s not my subject today.
Today, at 13,000 acres, White Oak has new proprietors, continuing its program of preserving imperiled animal species, including tigers, cheetahs, okapi and rhinoceri.
It’s not a zoo, although you can visit it and see the animals. One thing that differentiates it from most zoos is the amount of space in which the animals live, like this large enclosure for the rhinos.
Some of the animals are returned to the wild. One of the world’s most endangered mammals, the Florida Panther, with only about 130 surviving individuals, is a focus at White Oak. They raised an orphaned kitten and returned it to its native Big Cypress Wildlife Preserve.
There are fences, necessarily, but there’s also space. Enough that if you’re there at the right time, you really might see a cheetah run more than 50 mph. I didn’t, during the short time we had for seeing the animals (a corporate event planner spends a lot more time looking at meeting rooms and other facilities than they do at wild beasts, regrettably). I did see a mother cheetah and two kittens.
We were limited to a quick tour, and my business meant discussing logistics, not making pictures. I grabbed a shot of an Eastern Giant Eland (Tragelaphus derbianus gigas).
I was less successful capturing a double-wattled cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) while our van was in motion.
And a distant but appealing view of an entire field full of cheetah kittens.
I guess there’s not much more uplifting than a field full of baby cheetahs zipping around — unless you’re a mother rhinoceros admiring your little bundle of joy.
I’ll stop there, with new arrivals swelling the ranks of vanishing species. It’s reassuring to know that there are people working to keep our fellow inhabitants of earth alive. If you have an opportunity to pull off Interstate 95 and explore northeastern Florida, you can tour White Oak Conservation Center (and you’ll have more time for photos than I did). Tour information is on their website.
What happens where you are to help preserve our threatened species? Let us know by leaving a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google.