VERNON - The scenic views at the 3,100-foot high bluff over the Choctawhatchee River, the stories of the stage coach and 1830's public ferry on its Lassiter Lake and the fact that Gould Tree Farms has proven itself a conservationist of an endangered pine are some reasons that the property was chosen from among 73,000 tree farms to represent the southeastern region at a national forestry competition.

Owners of the tree farm Jon and Carol Gould have been awarded the Southern Regional Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year Award from the American Tree Farm System (ATFS). The Goulds tracts are one of four competing for the National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year Award, to be announced next month.

The Goulds maintain special measures to ensure water, wildlife and tree farm sustain their integrity and follow regulations. In doing so, the couple has found a vast space to share the recreational and educational opportunities, and history with groups local and abroad.

"What we had really had wanted to do is have the state of Florida's industry and the private landowners recognized," Jon Gould said, noting other southern states such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have been awarded several times for showcasing forestry and Florida, though known of many things, but has only once been recognized on a grander scale for its viability in developing sustainable forests.

Until this year with Gould Tree Farms, the state has never won a regional ATFS award.

"So, this way there's definitely going to be more recognition for Florida forestry in general."

Despite not having planned to become as involved in competition forestry, the Goulds now own four tree farm tracts totaling 655 acres across the Panhandle. Their commitment to sustainability in the forestry industry also led them to be the 2006 recipients of the Florida Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year Award.

"We were totally thrilled to have gone this far," Carol Gould said, speaking of the regional award. "It was totally unexpected."

One of the ATFS's goals, she added, "is to educate people about the private landowner and about how we are managing our forestry for sustainability of the water, recreational, the product .. and the wildlife."

"We just want people who are in forestry to have a vision of what it's like to be involved in forestry," she said.

Jon's journey into the industry began when he was a young boy who farmed trees with his father A. Harvey Gould at a plantation on Merritt Island, which is located in Brevard County, and where they hand planted 10,000 slash pine.

Through three separate occasions, the property would later become imminent domain in the 1950's for an expanded U.S. Space Program.

"So just by chance he fell in love with this (property)," Jon Gould said of his father after listing a number of other tracts he bought and sold. "He ended up settling down here in this little house over here."

Jon said his father purchased some other land off of Creek Road where he and Jon planted 50,000 trees. And in 1994, Jon and Carol purchased it.

Throughout the span of his life, from serving in Vietnam as an engineer officer in 1970 to fulfilling a 47-year career as a geotechnical engineer, Jon continued to planting in his father's honor, purchasing another of his father's Panhandle tracts in 2003 and 2010. The Goulds went on to purchase two additional timber tracts in 1997 and 2001 - 312 acres total.

The couple has invested heavily into growing longleaf pine, a type of pine that is well known for its resistance to the impacts of climate and pests. Its lumber is exceptional and was once used to build ships and railroads, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The official Alabama tree used to cover 90 million acres, but now it covers less than three-percent of that original acreage.

Several groups and private landowners have collaborated to restore longleaf pine forests, including the Goulds, who are original and long time members of Longleaf Alliance, which works to secure a sustainable for the longleaf ecosystem.

"When you bring back the longleaf, you have prescribed burns and that brings back natural grasses and that brings back the quail - we're starting to see quail on our land again, which we hadn't seen in 20 years maybe," Carol Gould said.

The fire-resistant longleaf takes five to 10 years longer to do the first thinning compared to other pines, Jon Gould said. But foresters can burn out the competition from the very planting, as opposed to other trees that would burn during the early stages.

Along with longleaf, loblolly, slash, shortleaf, Choctawhatchee sand and spruce pines are native to the Gould Tree Farms. According to ATFS, more than 60 species of trees have been identified on the tracks.

"Forests across the U.S. are facing a wide array of challenges – wildfires, insects, invasive weed species, the rising costs of forest management and more. Yet, Tree Farmers take on these challenges and work incredibly hard each and every day to keep their forests healthy and sustainable," Tom Martin, president and CEO of the American Tree Farm System, said in a statement.

More than one-third of U.S. forests are owned by family forest owners. Altogether, about 20 million forested acres are within ATFS.

The program provides small and private forest owners with the support they need to keep their properties healthy and sustainable. The programs also incorporates a third-party assessment process to certify land management practices.

"Our Regional Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year take this duty above and beyond. They not only have outstanding properties to show for it, but are spreading the word in their communities about the benefits of stewardship," Martin stated. "We are proud to honor them and share their stories and accomplishments."