Critical Connections: Lake Hancock and the Polk County Corridor

A great egret watches the waves on a fallen sabal palm at the edge of Lake Hancock.

Unprecedented Growth

As a Polk County native, I have witnessed firsthand the astonishing speed of our recent growth. However, I was shocked to find out that our county had the highest net migration in the entire United States. This extreme growth is very concerning when you look at the map of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and notice there is one very thin connection linking south Polk to the Green Swamp, and it all centers on Lake Hancock and its surrounding lands.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor in Polk County, the land surrounding Lake Hancock is a critical connection for wildlife.

My brother and I hanging on the old entrance to Circle B Bar Reserve in 2006.

Growing Up in Polk County

I have a very personal connection to this area as I was born and raised 10 minutes away in South Lakeland. I have fond childhood memories of running around the visitor center at Circle B Bar Reserve and hiking the many trails around Lake Hancock. Years later I was a volunteer counselor for their summer camp where we taught kids about the importance of this ecosystem and all the amazing wildlife that call it home. Now as a landscape and wildlife photographer, I’m drawn back to its immense beaty and biodiversity in an increasingly urbanized area.

Entrance to Circle B Bar Reserve’s Nature Discovery Center

The enchanting oak hammock trails at Circle B Bar Reserve.

Circle B Bar Reserve

The northwest side of Lake Hancock is home to the famous Circle B Bar Reserve, a former cattle ranch where visitors can experience real Florida at its finest. They have a fantastic visitors center, tram tours, and trails that go through swamp, marsh, scrub, and hammock habitats. Circle B has often made national news for videos of a gargantuan gator crawling out the water and crossing trails. I’ve also taken some of my best photos of wildlife here from baby gators resting on their mother’s back, to a family of great horned owls that nest in the moss-covered oak hammocks.

Baby gator resting on its mother’s back along the Heron Hideout trail.

Male great horned owl perched on a mossy oak tree.

Great horned owl next to its mother among the spanish moss.

Curious cattle at Marshall Hampton Reserve.

Marshall Hampton Reserve

To the east of Lake Hancock is Marshall Hampton Reserve, a working cattle ranch and trail system that extends south to where the lake feeds into Saddle Creek, and eventually the Peace River. Here you will find miles of hiking and biking trails that take you along the lake as well as prime locations for fishing. This property also serves as a floodplain swamp during the rainy season for the nearby housing.

A young calf watching me take photos at Marshall Hampton Reserve.

Swampy shoes of Lake Hancock from the Panther Point Trail at Marshall Hampton Reserve.

A cloudy sunrise on Lake Hancock from Circle B Bar Reserve.

Lake Hancock

Between these two stunning nature reserves is the 4,584-acre Lake Hancock, the largest in the county. The lake is the liquid heart of the area, supporting a large fish population that countless wading birds, waterfowl, raptors, and alligators rely on for food. Lake Hancock is also considered the headwaters of the ancient Peace River, which flows entirely within the Florida Wildlife Corridor until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico in Port Charlotte.

New apartments being built at Stuart Crossing in Bartow on former Corridor opportunity land.

Human Pressure on the Land

Unfortunately, development already has a foothold in and around this critical connection. 700 acres of Corridor opportunity land directly south of Lake Hancock are under construction at Stuart Crossing in Bartow. This former cattle ranch stretched from Highway 98 to Saddle Creek on Lake Hancock and will now be the sight of hundreds of homes, apartments, and retail space. Over at Marshall Hampton Reserve, the Southwest Florida Water Management District sold 67 acres of the property for the construction of the new Central Polk Parkway. Once complete, this toll road will further restrict the movement of wildlife in an already thin and crucial section of the Corridor.

The trailhead at Marshall Hampton Reserve in front of fencing for the new Central Polk Parkway.

View of the fence which divides Marshall Hampton Reserve from the future Central Polk Parkway.

Minding the Gaps

Despite the area’s development and rapid growth, there is still hope for this critical linkage. In April the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation brought together many local partner organizations to discuss the future of Polk County and this Lake Hancock connection point at our first ever “Mind the Gaps” event. Solving the complex problem of connecting and protecting wildlife corridors requires support and expertise from many fields. It was encouraging to see local governments, city planners, land trusts, environmental groups, and transportation agencies respond to our call for collaboration. This hands-on work between the Florida Department of Transportation, Central Florida Regional Planning Council, Archbold Biological Station, and the 20+ other groups in attendance yielded some great results and will lead to solutions for mitigating Polk County’s growth.

FWCF staff and partners mapping out conservation opportunities at our “Mind the Gaps” event.

FDOT wildlife crossings around I-4, the Saddle Creek crossing will connect Lake Hancock to the Green Swamp.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

One of the most exciting things I learned from “Mind the Gaps” is that FDOT has three wildlife crossings in the works along the I-4 corridor in Polk County. Since its creation, I-4 has been a lethal barrier to wildlife, but these crossings will finally allow them to move freely. One of these crossings will be a wildlife overpass just north of Lake Hancock that connects Saddle Creek to the Green Swamp. Another crossing is a newly opened underpass to the west, linking Hilochee Wildlife Management Area to the Green Swamp. Additionally, the 451-acre Wilson Ranch south of Lake Hancock on the Peace River is under consideration for acquisition by the Florida Forever Project, which would permanently protect this critical riverfront land.

FDOT’s newly complete I-4 underpass at Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk County.

Living in Harmony with Nature

Our environment shapes who we are, and the Polk County corridor certainly played a role in shaping who I am today. This land is so important because it is one of the last stretches of green space in an increasingly urban area. Not only does it provide space for wildlife to roam freely, it also protects our homes from flooding, offers outdoor activities for the community, and provides countless other ecological benefits. I want Polk County to be known for its access to nature and I encourage residents to advocate for protecting these critical connections before they are lost forever.

Osprey couple looking over Circle B Bar Reserve from their nest.

Ethan CoylePhotography Intern
Ethan is a senior at the University of South Florida studying Advertising and Environmental Science. Born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, he has spent most of his time outdoors leading him to develop a passion for nature photography. Most recently, he spent his spring break exploring the Everglades after being inspired by the “Path of the Panther” documentary. He is a true lover of old Florida and hopes to use his visual creativity to spark interest in preserving our state’s beautiful landscapes.