Forking to the right at the beginning of the loop and going in a counterclockwise direction, visitors first pass through an area with widely spaced pine trees and extensive low vegetation.
|Former Pine Plantation Undergoing Restoration|
Interspersed with the pine savanna are occasional wetlands dominated by pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and mesic hardwoods such as red maple (Acer rubrum).
|Loblolly pine on the edge of a wetland.|
Even rarer are longleaf pines. Those in the photo below were found in a small patch where the trail comes close to County Road 347. Very long needles, large cones, bark that is scaly rather than broken into regular plates, and more open crowns distinguish these pines from the others. I saw no sign of reproduction of longleaf here, although these trees may not yet be old enough to produce fertile cones.
The trail crosses a small hardwood hammock and soon enters an area of scrub forest.
A flat, straight trail could be constructed with little need to move significant quantities of earth. Unfortunately, the ridge gave out before its builders had achieved the desired distance, and as the landscape became wetter, it became necessary to construct a more substantial embankment.
Not only did continuation of the tramway require more work, but it caused more serious and longer lasting damage to the environment. Acting like a dam, the half mile long embankment interrupted the normal flow of surface and ground water, making some places wetter, and others drier than before. In places ponds were formed where they would not otherwise have occurred.
|Pond vegetation in a ditch created by construction of the tramway embankment|
Changes caused by construction of logging roads are a problem throughout the refuge, and they are unlikely to be reversed, owing to the level of effort required and the difficulty of recreating drainage patterns that were disrupted long ago. The problem of hydrological change is particularly severe in the refuge's lowland swamps where ditches interrupt sheet flow of water. Some uplands have been further damaged by "windrowing," in which deep furrows were dug in order to create artificial "slashes" --depressions that would collect moisture and favor the growth of slash pines.
Despite various habitat alterations, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is a rich repository of biological diversity. In the first mile of the Tram Ridge Trail one encounters a restored pine savanna, and large and small patches of different communities, including forested wetlands, palmettos and hardwood shrubs, grasslands, a hardwood hammock, and xeric scrub. Each of these habitats has its own assemblage of plant and animal species, and the mosaic they form accommodates a diverse mixture of species favoring not only each different habitat, but also those favoring their borders and the transition areas between them.
By the end of the trail visitors will have gotten a better understanding of damages done to the natural environment by industrial timber production. These include more or less reversible damage being addressed by ongoing restoration activities, and the less reversible changes resulting for road construction and other landscape alterations. The restored pine plantations provide a glimpse of what the natural savanna vegetation of the region might have looked like. They also provide hope for the future in the eventual restoration of their diverse plant and animal communities.