Refuges offer recreation
The timber industry provides jobs, landscapes and refuge to Nassau County residents. The Record explores the protective services, historical aspects, landowner assistance and recreational opportunities available through the Florida Forest Service. This is the final article in a five-part series.
Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest plays host to a variety of wildlife and recreational outlets.
Since 1992, the Florida Forest Service has managed the refuge through an agreement with the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Formerly known as the St. Marys River State Forest, the refuge in Boulogne was renamed to memorialize Simmons, a former SJRWMD board member. The St. Marys River serves as a natural northern boundary of the 3,638-acre forest and as the primary water source for the refuge.
The trees and grassy areas change according to the properties within the soil.
“Sedimentation and buildup from the St. Marys River gives the area rich soil,” said FFS firefighter and biologist Noah Wyatt.
Twelve topographical areas provide support for a wide variety of animals, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, white-tail deer, otter and wild turkey. One hundred species of butterflies reside in the refuge, with some varieties exclusive only to Ralph E. Simmons, according to Wyatt. At least 30 different species of dragonflies also co-exist while gopher tortoises support 360 wildlife species with the burrows they dig for shelter.
“The gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the forest,” Wyatt said. “It’s so important. We worry about the gopher tortoises disappearing because it’s so important to all these other species within this ecosystem.”
He has worked at the forest for nearly four years and regularly observes nature and the seasons within an environment he said offers space, solitude and the challenges of self-reliance. Wyatt holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife from Arkansas Technical University.
“I can’t think of a better job where you get a diverse opportunity to do a variety of outdoor-based jobs,” Wyatt said.
During a recent tour, the forester pointed out an open primitive and group camping site located under a canopy of oak trees.
Often scout troops, school groups and nature and hiking groups camp in the area.
High school cross country teams also hold competitions at the forest.
For those who just want to relax, picnic tables and cooking grills are available for use not too far from the St. Marys River. Though public, Scotts Landing Boat Ramp provides access to the refuge.
On land, visitors take advantage of at least 10 miles of mature equestrian and biking trails.
“You can hike this forest and it’s you and nature, enjoying all that nature provides by yourself,” Wyatt said. “This is the public’s forest. They should be out enjoying this.”
Hunting season begins this month with archery season available Sept. 16-24. Specific permits may apply to hunting seasons through mid-April.
In Bryceville and continuing into Duval County, biking, equestrian and walking trails are available at Cary State Forest, along with RV camping. The site has a pavilion that is utilized by the FFS for educational programs. The pavilion is also available to rent, according to a Cary State Forest pamphlet.
Visitors at both forests are encourage to check with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for respective hunting seasons and license requirements.
Supporting the forests’ activities are the Friends of Florida State Forests.
Program Coordinator Doug Ott seeks to raise awareness of available activities throughout Florida’s state forests. To learn more about becoming a Friend, visit floridastateforests.org.
As he works the refuge, Wyatt appreciates the community volunteers who roll up their sleeves to collect trash and debris left by visitors. From July 1, 2016 through July 30, 2017 volunteers provided 1,600 hours of manpower at Ralph E. Simmons, freeing up Wyatt’s time to focus on his tasks.
“Without them a lot of things would be put off for later,” he said.