Florida Panhandle (Apalachicola National Forest), © Julie Tew
© Julie Tew

Florida Panhandle

Basic Facts about the Florida Panhandle

The Florida Panhandle is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world.

From dense pine forests, seepage streams and major rivers, to coastal marshes and pristine beaches, it is home to a wide array of key and endangered species, including gopher tortoises, sea turtles, manatees, red-cockaded woodpeckers, eastern indigo snakes, migratory birds and numerous species of fresh water mussels. The Florida Panhandle offers one of the few remaining opportunities in the southeastern U.S. to protect large areas of extremely unique ecosystems. The region also contains two particularly ecologically important areas: 

The Apalachicola River Basin

Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive and economically important estuarine systems in the northern hemisphere: 95% of species harvested commercially in the open Gulf spend part of their lives in estuarine waters. Blue crabs, for example, migrate as much as 300 miles to spawn in Apalachicola Bay! The bay is a critical passage for fish that migrate between freshwater and the sea, and a major resting and forage area for migratory birds. The iconic Florida manatee also heads to the bay during the summer months. The river basin is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, an EPA Gulf of Mexico Ecological Management Site and a NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Eglin Air Force Base 

Elgin Air Force Base covers 724 square miles and includes control of 86,000 square miles of airspace and water range in the Gulf of Mexico. At 464,000 acres, Eglin is the largest forested military base in the world!  It supports a range of unique plants and animals, including several species and subspecies found nowhere else. Eglin is home to what is considered the largest sandhill ecosystem in the world.  Sandhill forest is characterized by widely-spaced pines, interspersed with a sparse understory of deciduous trees and grass, herbs and shrubs filling in as groundcover. This forest is thought to be the largest contiguous old growth longleaf pine forest in existence. This vital ecosystem supports the world's fourth largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, 95% of the entire range of the endangered Okaloosa darter, the only known population of the endangered lichen Cladonia perforata, and an extremely high diversity of rare reptiles and amphibians, such as the flatwoods salamander and gopher tortoise. The base also contains 20 miles of pristine barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico which provide habitat for many rare species, including the largest intact population of beach mice in northwest Florida, and 53% of the entire state's population of threatened snowy plovers. Eglin's beaches also provide nesting areas for loggerhead and green sea turtles, and serve as an important rest area for neotropical migratory birds.