Wetland Preserve LLC & Land Stewardship

Photo by Sonja Pedersen

A History of Conservation

Ben and Louann Williams began their path toward conservation while still working in the commercial fishing industry out of Jacksonville, Florida over thirty years ago when they got involved with the St. Johns River Keeper. While speaking with Mr. Williams he stated that they got involved in environmental issues because, “If this environment that is producing what we sell isn’t healthy. I mean, that’s just rational self-interest right there. It’s like, okay, we got to make sure this thing works. We got to help protect this. And so that’s what we did.” Buying their tree farm just on the outskirts of Palatka in 2009 the Williams sold their seafood market in 2015 and shifted towards conservation-driven tree farming. Since getting started in tree farm the Williams have been recognized as Florida Land Steward Landowner of the Year (FWC) in 2019 and by the American Tree Farm System as the Florida 2021 Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year.

Wetland Preserve Timber Farm

Currently, the Wetland Preserve land consists of 3,800 acres that are protected under conservation easements funded by Florida Forever. Neighbors to the Rice Creek Conservation Area and the Nine Mile Swamp Park, the location of Wetland Preserve’s tree farm allows it to act as a buffer zone and helps to reinforce the O2O (Ocala to Osceola) part of Florida’s Wildlife Corridor. With the water flow of their land leading into the St. Johns River, the Williams take sustainable forestry practices to heart, recognizing that actions unfolding on their land plays a part in the quality and health of the river that flows through Putnam County and provides a living to communities in northeast Florida.

Sustainable Forestry

Photo by Sonja Pedersen

Often the words tree farming, conservation, and sustainability do not go hand-in-hand in public perception, but when timber is farmed sustainably native plants, habitats, and animals have the opportunity to thrive. So, what does sustainable tree farming look like? According to Mr. Williams, this looks like not clear-cutting their plots when harvesting, long-term rotation stands, clearing away underbrush, and keeping up regularly with their prescribed burns. “If you manage for the native plants, and that’s one of the things we do with Schrag burning and the longer rotation stand management that we do, we’re managing for the plants how the woods would have been in a more natural state…”, said Mr. Williams. The Williams manage their land with conservation in mind with every action they take.

Nurturing Native Ecosystems

Keeping one of their stands unproductive, the Williams use this portion of their land to educate local homeschool groups and visitors from the Audubon Society on the ecological benefits that properly maintained working lands can provide to their local ecosystems. Giving an example of one of these visits Mr. Williams said,

“And when we can stop, and we can have that discussion, and we can build public support for sustainable forestry, for the hunting we were talking about, for the native plants, for the prescribed burning, that moves the vision forward.”

Photo by Marshall Smith

By employing sustainable practices, the Williams family has seen an increase of Bobcats, Deer, Snail Kites, and Gopher Tortoises on their property as well as more local flora such as mountain mint, wild blueberries, and skyflower. Their grassy roads have turned into 16 miles of linear meadows under their stewardship. In addition to maintaining burns and long rotation stands, the maintenance practices by the Williams also allow for permitted hunters to hunt hogs, keeping the destructive population of wild hogs under control and from damaging the fragile ecosystems that they are attempting to rebuild.

Ocala to Osceola- Connecting the Wildlife Corridor

All of the practices used by the Williams have helped them to build and turn their land back into a functional part of the local ecosystem in northcentral Florida. Not only is their land a functional part of the St. Johns River ecosystem it has also helped form a connecting portion in the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor (Ocala National Forest to the Osceola National Forest) and maintain a mile of the Florida Trail that runs through their property, allowing people and animals to enjoy what natural Florida has to offer.

Catalin Grant Storytelling Intern
Catalin is a fourth-generation South Floridian who has had the opportunity to experience the diverse ecosystems that Florida has to offer. She grew up in Davie, Florida, and Tallahassee, Florida, and earned her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. She is working towards her M.A. in Anthropology from Florida Atlantic University. Her current thesis work examines the relationship between generational cattle ranchers, conservation, and development within the state of Florida.