Analysis of Urbanization Effects on Forest Vegetation


The Florida Panhandle is undergoing rapid land-use and ownership changes resulting from the sales of St. Joe's Lumber Company properties. From the turn of 20th century to the mid-1980s, St. Joe's managed over 800,000 acres of forest lands for forest products. Currently much of this land is being sold for urban development (commercial and residential) because of rising land prices and failing timber markets. The resulting changes, both positive and negative, will significantly affect natural ecosystems and the cultural and economic attributes of the landscape. This research project will help to develop an integrated approach to monitoring changes from urbanization to ecological and social systems in this region. From this work we will develop best management practices that promote the positive attributes of urbanization while minimizing its negative effects. The protocols developed with this research can be used in other regions to assess urban effects.


  1. Establish permanent plots following the USFS Forest Health Monitoring protocols to assess the effect of urbanization on private and public lands.
  2. Conduct a spatio-temporal analysis of Gulf, Liberty and Franklin Counties in the Florida Panhandle to determine how, where, and when land use changed
  3. Host a 'summit' of interested parties to develop an interdisciplinary approach to assess how urbanization is altering ecosystem services in the Florida Panhandle.

Research Methods

Objective 1: Permanent plots will be established along two primary transects: 1) along SR 98 east of Apalachicola to St. Teresa and 2) along SR 98 west of Port St. Joe to Mexico Beach. These two transects were chosen because each are experiencing rapid changes to urban land uses and have different proportions of public and private lands. The transects east of Apalachicola will include both public (Apalachicola National Forest and Tate's Hell State Forest) and private lands. The transects west of Port St. Joe will include only private lands. The positioning of plots and transects will allow us to assess how urbanization affects public and private lands differently.

For each transect, a series of permanent plots will be established. The density and arrangement of plots will follow a stratified random design with equal number of plots along each transect. Plot locations will be determined using a GIS program in collaboration with FS Forest Inventory and Assessment. Plot design will follow the Forest Service's Forest Health Monitoring Protocols. By using this protocol, we will be able to compare local patterns to national patterns. Details of plot design and sampling methodology can be found at Plot establishment will precede the 'summit' meeting mentioned in Objective 3 because of the rapid changes currently occurring along these transects. Delays in establishing plots may result in loss of base line data.

Objective 2: To study how urbanization affects a region, a spatio-temporal analysis is being conducted. This analysis portraits how a region changes over time and where those changes take place. Data will be taken from both Landstat imagery and aerial photography from 1970 to 2005. Land-use types being inventoried include urban (e.g., residential, commercial, transportation), agricultural (both crops and pastures), forest (hardwoods, pines, and mix), and water. These data are particularly important for planners because they allow us to conduct 'what if' scenarios. By conducting 'what if' scenarios, we can evaluate the effect of a proposed development on a location, For example, how does development affect adjacent areas? By conducting regional analyses of land-use change, we can better understand how urbanization affects an area positively and negatively.

Objective 3: A summit of key individuals will be convened in March 2007 to discuss and develop an integrative approach for assessing how urbanization alters ecological and social systems on both public and private lands. Attendees will include, but are not limited to, economists, ecologists, hydrologists, wildlife biologists, sociologists, planners, and personnel from the Forest Service, water management districts, Florida's Division of Forestry, St. Joe's Real Estate Company, consultants to St. Joe, and representatives from other timber companies such as Plumb Creek Lumber Company. The summit will last for 1.5 days. In the morning on the first day, one or two presentation(s) will set the stage for discussions in the afternoon to identify meta-questions. On the second morning, discussions will focus on implementing studies to address identified meta-questions. Potential focus areas include biophysical elements (e.g., water quality, carbon cycling, altered disturbance regimes), social elements (e.g., changes in culture attributes, demographics), and economic elements (e.g., reduced timber production, new service positions, increased human services).