The Diverse and Ancient Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

History of the Lake Wales Ridge

The Lake Wales Ridge is a vast and highly diverse ecosystem that ranges from south of Lake Placid to north of Clermont, about 110 miles in length. The long narrow ridge was elevated around 300 feet above sea level making it the largest, highest, and oldest of the ridges in Central Florida. The ridge is an ancient dune system that hasn’t been underwater since even before the Pleistocene, meaning the plants and animals located here have adapted to this upland environment. The scrub ecosystem that flourishes on the ridge today may have the highest concentration of rare and endangered plants in the continental United States. Approximately 354 acres of the ridge are currently within the Florida Wildlife Corridor through the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Florida Forever Project. The two properties included in the corridor are adjacent to Highlands Hammock State Park and are within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

The Lake Wales Ridge State Forest spans 26,579 acres throughout Polk County Florida. The forest is home to numerous of Florida’s rare and endangered plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else in the world. The forest serves as a habitat for 33 plants and 36 animals that currently have federal or state status as threatened or endangered. One way they work to help conserve rare plant life throughout the forest is by monitoring them. A plant conservation biologist stationed in the forest monitors the rare plants not only throughout the forest but in the surrounding areas as well. Some of the rare plants and animals found throughout the forest include the scrub jay, sand skink, scrub plum, and pygmy fringe tree.

Planned Burning

Nathan Bartosek is the Forestry Resource Administrator at the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. Bartosek says one of the biggest things they do to protect and conserve the forest is planned burnings of the land. The state of Florida is highly fire-dependent, especially on the ridge, “everything here is very fire-dependent to the point where if you don’t burn an area, it doesn’t function properly,” said Bartosek. He says that in the upcoming fiscal year, the state forest has 8,500 acres on its burn plan.

Outside Threats

Bartosek shared that the biggest threat currently facing the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is encroachment. Without vast landscapes and large pieces of land surrounding the forest, it can become very difficult for them to apply their main tool, fire. Development in the surrounding areas can impact the forest’s burning regimes. For instance, they have “smoke-sensitive” areas that require them to be extra cautious with their burning. An example of this is highways like 60 and 630 that surround the forest which are included in the smoke-sensitive areas.

“With more and more traffic and more and more neighborhoods,” said Bartosek, “we’ve seen more and more people coming here from out of state who don’t understand the role of fire in our ecosystem.”

Hopes for the Future

Development and encroachment don’t just impact the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. In fact, 85% of the Lake Wales Ridge has already been lost to development, “there’s no telling what’s already been lost, and we definitely want to work to protect what’s left,” Bartosek said. According to Bartosek, in order to protect what’s left numerous things must be done, such as money for land purchasing, the expansion of state and local government lands, and putting a focus on educating the public. Bartosek also believes that people need to be proactive about protecting the resources they have, “there are things here on the ridge that are nowhere else, and once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said.

Being a Proactive Community Member

Another major issue the state forest has to fight is invasive plants. Many times, when people plant things in their gardens they see it as only being in and affecting their yard. Yet it is something that a homeowner/landowner does which can really affect the natural ecosystem around them. Instead, Bartosek suggests trying to plant native plant species or plants that help pollinators in your yard. Another way Bartosek says you can be a proactive member of your community is by volunteering, “volunteering with whether it be your local park, the local forest or a nonprofit is very beneficial to the environment,”. Lastly, Bartosek urges people to look into whom they are voting for at the state and local levels and see what their stance is on public land and protecting and preserving nature.

If you’d like to visit the beauty that is Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, you can find more information about the forest and public recreation on their website linked below.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest
Avery Joens Storytelling Intern
Avery Joens is a senior in college at the University of Central Florida studying journalism. Her passion for storytelling and environmental reporting is what led her to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. She recently won a Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists award for environmental reporting on a story she did about the Indian River Lagoon. Avery is a Florida native whose love for her state grew through spending time at the beaches, springs, and FL Keys.