Old Town Creek Watershed
Polk and Hardee Counties

by Joe Guthrie

The protection of large areas and the ecological linkages between these areas is a more comprehensive approach than simply protecting large areas, as is sometimes the case for national parks. This landscape approach to conservation is at the heart of the Florida Forever land protection program. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Florida collaborate to identify the most important landscape unit candidates for Florida Forever protection through the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN). The FEGN represents the largest areas of ecological and natural resource importance as well as the landscape linkages necessary to link these areas. The vision of the FEGN is a statewide network of conservation land. Perhaps the most important consideration in the process is connectivity. How a property is connected to other important conservation land or ecological processes is a central question in the Florida Forever program. To help inform these decisions, Florida DEP and UF ecologists have developed the Critical Linkages to the FEGN.

The Critical Linkages are a collection of the most important areas for connecting large conservation land units. For example, the Ocala National Forest and Camp Blanding Joint Training Center are two large conservation areas set apart by roughly 22 miles in north central Florida. Using data on habitats and species presence, ecologists defined the best available corridor of natural land between the two units. This is the Ocala National Forest to Camp Blanding critical linkage, and its protection is dependent on programs like Florida Forever.

Another critical linkage lies between the Avon Park Air Force Range and Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring, in Highlands County. The linkage consists of 77,000 acres, connecting the 106,000-acre military base to the 9,200-acre state park, which lies west of Sebring. The linkage overlays U.S. Highway 27, a major arterial 4-6 lane road that runs the length of the Florida peninsula. Less than 20% of the linkage is protected. The proximity of the areas in the linkage to current development make it a high priority for protection.

 Critical Linkages Photographer Steve Vaughn captures the peaceful essence of the Old Town Creek Watershed.

It is by-and-large a pine and palm meadow kind of place…one of the beautiful places that we’re saving for the next generation. It is a watershed and therefore will have great value in the future.
–Steve Vaughn.

Read more at “A View From the Other Side of the Lens” here.

Within each critical linkage there are opportunities for Florida Forever to be useful in getting important ecological land protected. In the Avon Park-Highlands Hammock landscape there is the Old Town Watershed Florida Forever BOT project. The Old Town Watershed project is a 7,300-acre project based around a working cattle ranch. It sits only 1.5 miles west of U.S. 27, but it comprises the entire width of the ecological corridor. The property is a matrix of wetland and upland habitats, and supports the natural communities characteristic of south-central Florida. The northeastern corner of the site includes part of the Lake Wales Ridge, a physiographic region of the state that is rich in rare plant and animal species.

Cattle ranches in south-central Florida are vital to conservation efforts in the region. The region is predominately a privately owned landscape. Development along U.S. 27 has ravaged the uplands of the Lake Wales Ridge, which has seen roughly 85% of its area converted to some human land use. And development plans continue to emerge. Even in the current economic climate there are over 60 Developments of Regional Impact – read “large housing projects” – either in the planning stage or already approved just in the Everglades landscape. This is despite the hundreds of thousands of lots in similar projects that lie largely uninhabited throughout the region. These projects often take place on former ranchlands. The Old Town Watershed eastern boundary faces a sprawling subdivision of north Sebring. Keeping cattle ranchers in business provides a buffer against such habitat fragmenting and species threatening projects.

The Old Town Watershed proposal, in addition to providing a sanctuary for rare habitat and a connection to species-rich Highlands Hammock, protects Old Town Creek. Old Town Creek feeds Charlie Creek, a tributary of the Peace River. The strip of wetlands and lowland forested habitat that buffers Charlie Creek stretches out through the ranches of Hardee County. These narrow strips are the highways used by the black bears of south-central Florida. In 2006 a radio-telemetry study on the local population documented a young male bear dispersing across this landscape and eventually reaching the Peace River, some 40 miles west of his former range. If such corridors and ecological connections are to continue to exist in Florida, the cattle ranches like the one on Old Town Creek will need to be protected. Florida Forever funding can accomplish such tasks.