Steve and Rosemary Lee: Leaving a legacy of land, wildlife for granddaughter
Steve Lee has invested his knowledge, work and pride in the 103 acres he and his wife Rosemary are conserving for wildlife in Columbia County, and the results are evident. He is seeing more whitetail deer, black bear, wild turkey and bobcat on his land and tells of large bucks wandering through - some so familiar he and his granddaughter named them as they watched from a deer stand. “I saw 12 deer the other morning,” Lee observed.
He shows visitors the longleaf pines he planted five years ago, now green, healthy and taller than he is. He knows he is helping restore the longleaf forest that once carpeted north Florida and the southeast United States. He also acknowledges his growing respect for the threatened gopher tortoise and says his land is providing habitat for an expanding number of tortoises and their burrows.
“Some day when I’m dead and gone, my granddaughter will enjoy it,” Lee said of his conservation efforts. “We’re blessed. It’s worth it to me. This is the way it used to be.”
A retiree from his job as a postmaster in Lake City, Lee works hard to keep his acreage healthy and wildlife friendly. He’s out here regularly for the periodic planting, mowing and prescribed burning that his property needs to support wildlife. He is a partner with the Landowner Assistance Program (LAP) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that created a wildlife management plan at no cost to help him maintain and restore traditional Florida habitats. The plan is a detailed manual on what he can do voluntarily to enhance his land for to sustain wildlife.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said Lee, who participates in LAP workshops and is involved with LAP partners such as the Florida Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) assisted him with the expense of managing longleaf pines for wildlife habitat. Increased use of prescribed burning and mowing “helped me more than anything” to restore wildlife habitat, he said. “We’ve done it more. We always tried to do it if we could. It regenerates.”
On a day in early November, Kris Cathey, an LAP regional biologist, is pleased to be walking the property with Steve and Rosemary as they show off the results of their determination to keep this land a piece of the older, wilder Florida that Steve remembers from his boyhood. Cathey notes that the Lee property, adjacent to Suwannee River Water Management District lands, functions as an extension of the wildlife corridor in this area. It contains north Florida flatwoods, wetland hardwood hammock and swamp hardwoods.
As a third-generation Floridian, Lee is determined to make this peaceful piece of Florida land just west of the Suwannee River and south of the Georgia line into a legacy for his teenage granddaughter. Rural Florida wilderness is in his blood, since he grew up on a large farm in Suwannee County where his father “worked with his hands and it was his pride.” Growing up, Steve was the son who went out with his father on Sundays to look over the crops and land, and he would head to the woods and streams for hunting, fishing and watching wildlife, things he still prefers to do with his time. He said he and his wife happily made the choice to keep this land and maintain it for native wildlife rather than selling or developing it. While generating income from producing timber and pine straw remains his primary land management objective, Lee decided enhancing habitats for resident wildlife species should be included in that goal.
“You take some, but you got to give back,” Lee said of his land. “You have to take a long-range prospectus. It doesn’t happen overnight. My father always said when you sell something it’s gone but if you get land and keep it, you can pass it on.”