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Gilchrist County home to the Bell Ridge Longleaf Wildlife and Environmental Area

By Cindy Jo Ayers
Longleaf Pine, once covered around 90 million acres from Virginia to Florida, west through Louisiana to eastern Texas were mostly gone by the 1920s. These majestic pines reach heights of 80 to 100 feet when mature. Today they only cover about 3 percent of their natural range.
Longleaf Pines prefer sandy, dry, acidic soils with elevations from sea level to 2,300 feet. The area that is now Gilchrist County once was home to an abundance of Longleaf. But today, just as throughout the rest of the South, these trees are not so plentiful.
Fortunately those living in Gilchrist County have a large stand of 80 year old Longleaf Pines growing almost in the middle of the county. The Bell Ridge Longleaf Wildlife and Environmental Area encompasses some 720 acres that is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Habitat Program. The FFWC considers it to be, “One of the highest quality longleaf pine sandhill forest in Florida.”
Bell Ridge Longleaf WEA is open for public use year around but winter and early spring are the best times to visit. The property includes a three mile sandhill trail or loop through the pines as well as 11 miles of firebreaks to hike down.
It is believed that cattle grazed the pine forest and turpentining of Longleaf pines may have occurred at Bell Ridge in the past.
The Nature Conservancy acquired the Bell Ridge Longleaf WEA in 1991. It was previously known as the Davidson Ranch before it was sold. The property was once used as a mitigation park for gopher tortoise impacted by development elsewhere. In other words gopher tortoise were relocated to the land so the property they naturally lived on could be developed.
No hunting, fishing, driving, horse riding, pets or biking are allowed in Bell Ridge Longleaf WEA. There is however a designated parking area and a kiosk for the public. No bathrooms are available on the property. Entrance is free to the public, no permit is required.
If you are lucky you might spot a gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, fox squirrels and a number of birds, even some rare ones while hiking the loop at Bell Ridge. The property also includes not only Longleaf Pines but also Turkey Oaks, and wiregrass.
State records show that the Nature Conservancy purchased the property in 1991 for $750,000 and sold it to the State in 2008 for $2,000,000.
So go out and enjoy a wonderful quiet winter afternoon in Gilchrist County, hike the loop and enjoy the land, the flora and the fauna.