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Lake Wales Ridge

Lake Wales map
Lake Wales program area

Healthy scrub
Healthy scrub
© Eric Blackmore

The rising and receding ocean has shaped and reshaped peninsular Florida over millions of years. When ocean levels were higher 650,000 years ago, much of the peninsula was under water, leaving just a small chain of islands down the middle of the state where wind and wave action deposited a series of dunes. The largest and oldest of these ancient sand dunes is the Lake Wales Ridge. Cut off from the mainland, the Ridge’s plants and animals evolved in unique ways. Today, the Ridge contains one of the highest concentrations of rare plants and animals in the United States.

Rare Plants & Animals

  • Florida scrub-jay
  • bald eagle
  • swallow-tailed kite
  • great horned owl
  • screech owl
  • ruby-throated hummingbird
  • red-cockaded woodpecker
  • red-shouldered hawk
  • red-tailed hawk
  • sand skink
  • gopher tortoise
  • scrub lizard
  • scrub mint
  • scrub ziziphus
  • Avon Park harebells
  • Ashe’s savory
  • pigmy fringe tree
  • Carter’s warea
  • Lewton’s polygala


 Threats

  • The well-drained sands of the Ridge make it desirable for both citrus farming and housing development. Approximately 85 percent of the Ridge’s ancient uplands have been lost, and almost all remaining Ridge habitat is under the imminent threat of development.
  • Increased development and fragmentation of natural areas has stopped fire from moving across the land as it once did. This absence of natural fire has degraded habitat for native plants and animals and has allowed plant materials and vegetation to accumulate at a high volume, making fires more catastrophic.
  • The region is also facing a terrible new threat from Old World climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum). One of the worst plants ever to invade Florida’s environment, this vine’s ability to grow and spread rapidly is having devastating effects on central Florida’s natural areas.

Florida scrub-jay
Florida scrub-jay
© Eric Blackmore
Conservancy Action

  • Since the early 1970s, the Conservancy has helped protect more than 32,000 acres on the Lake Wales Ridge. 
  • To mimic the effects of historic natural fires, trained land managers set fire to the landscape when soil and weather conditions allow for controlled burning. These “prescribed burns” eliminate overgrown plants, restore habitat for scrub species and reduce the threat of uncontrollable wildfires to nearby homes. 
  • The Conservancy coordinates the multi-agency Florida Scrub-jay Fire Strike Team to provide additional resources needed for conducting prescribed burns to restore scrub-jay habitat. Since 2000, the team has burned more than 16,000 acres and prepared almost 8,500 acres for future burns.
  • The Conservancy and Archbold Biological Station have created the Jay Watch program to identify land management techniques that will most effectively enhance scrub-jay habitat and contribute to the long-term survival of the Florida scrub-jay. The program brings together researchers, land managers and citizens to monitor scrub-jay populations on public and private lands.
  • The Conservancy has joined forces with agencies and private landowners to combat the spread of Old World climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum) by surveying and monitoring locations of the invasive vine and immediately killing infestations once identified.
  • Using the Conservancy’s new global planning methods, biologists have identified objectives and strategies for the long-term protection of the Ridge’s native plants and animals.
  • The Conservancy also conducts important research projects on some of the Ridge’s rare species, including monitoring the response of rare plants to prescribed burns, groundwater levels at Tiger Creek Preserve and the effects of feral hogs on cutthroat grass.

Preserves

  • Tiger Creek Preserve, Polk County (Open to the public)
  • Saddle Blanket Scrub Preserve, Polk County
  • Sunray Preserve, Polk County
  • Venus Flatwoods Preserve, Highlands County

For More Information
For more information about the Conservancy’s Lake Wales Ridge program, call (863) 635-7506.