Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem
Lake, Osceola, Polk and Highlands Counties
by Joe Guthrie
The Lake Wales Ridge (LWR) has long been recognized as a major geomorphological feature of peninsular Florida. “The Ridge,” as it is locally known, is a relict of a shoreline and beach dune system dating to the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million y.a. to 11,700 y.a.). The LWR is older and richer in number of endemic plants and animals associated with its characteristic dry, upland habitats than other Florida ridge networks. These uplands provide habitat for 21 federally listed plant species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth, as well as the federally endangered Florida scrub jay, and state’s only endemic mammal, the Florida mouse. Although the LWR has gained worldwide attention as a global hotspot of rare plants and biodiversity, the notoriety has not served to protect it from human development. Indeed, over 85% of upland plant communities on the LWR have been lost to some human land use.
Since 1985, state and federal programs have acquired and protected over 45,000 acres of undeveloped land on the LWR, primarily through Preservation 2000 and its successor Florida Forever. Despite these gains, development continues to destroy precious natural areas. Most natural habitats consist of scrub or sandhill communities and scrubby flatwoods, while the areas at the edge of the ridge support unique seepage communities like bayheads, oak hammocks, and pine flatwoods carpeted with increasingly rare cutthroat grass.
It is not hard to find reasons to protect what remains of the LWR. From a pure science perspective, the natural vegetation on the LWR provides information on the pre-Columbian landscape. Archbold Biological Station, near the southern terminus of the ridge in Highlands County, is a warehouse of long-term ecological data from the LWR, and a stopping point for many distinguished researchers. Virtually every year ecologists discover new endemic species in the scrub. From a wildlife management perspective, this landscape provides shelter and a smorgasbord of food, like scrub oak acorns and saw palmetto berries, or soft mast like wild grape and raspberry. For a female black bear approaching the winter the food-laden scrub acts as a magnet, drawing them out of the bayheads and hammocks to gorge themselves in preparation for denning.
The LWR Ecosystem Florida Forever BOT project consists of separate sites along the ridge, which are intended to be a part of a system of managed areas that conserve the character, biodiversity and ecosystem processes of the ancient scrubs. The project area comprises some 59,000 acres, roughly 25,000 acres of which still need protection. All the sites are fragments vulnerable to mismanagement and disturbance. Nevertheless, the sites contain the best remaining examples of the ancient scrub, as well as lakefront, swamps, black water streams, pine flatwoods, seepage slopes, hammocks and sandhills. This project is the last opportunity to protect the highest concentration of narrowly endemic scrub plants and animals on the LWR, many of which are in jeopardy of extinction.