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Orlando Sentinel: Florida Rare Species

Orlando Sentinel

Date: Sunday, March 11, 2007 Section: A SECTION
Edition: FINAL Page: A1
Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer

STATE BUYS TIME FOR RIDGE OF RARE SPECIES
Much of Lake Wales Ridge has fallen to developers. Florida tries to save
the rest.

LAKE WALES RIDGE — It might not look like much, but there’s nowhere else
on Earth like it.
The sandy strip of land jutting at most about 300 feet above sea level and
running 150 miles down the middle of the state was once the only bit of
dry ground poking up through a shallow prehistoric ocean. What grew there
2 million or 3 million years ago — and still grows today — wasn’t
pretty: a sparse, sandy habitat covered with underbrush.
Scrub: Even the name sounds ugly, preservationists admit. But for dozens
of species, it’s food, shelter — and survival.
Indeed, the scrubby Lake Wales Ridge, extending from Lake County south to
Highlands County, is home to one of the highest concentrations of
threatened and endangered species in the world — 33 plant and 36 wildlife
species are listed — and is the only habitat just like it on the planet.
But over the years, more than 85 percent of it has been plowed under for
citrus groves and paved over for housing developments. Now, in an effort
to protect what’s left, the state has added 11,000 acres in south Polk
County to its list of lands targeted for conservation, called Florida
Forever.
“We are really pleased,” said Jeff Spence, director of Environmental
Affairs for Polk County.
Saving the 11,000 acres near Lake Wales, he said, would prevent further
degradation of parts bordering U.S. Highway 27 and two miles of lake
frontage on Crooked Lake, a state-designated “outstanding” water body. The
area includes what has been termed “one of the best remaining unprotected”
scrub habitats, and 13 other natural communities, including cypress
swamps, flatwoods, sandhill, freshwater marshes and seepage slopes, which
are bogs where diverse plant life thrives.
The property is owned by several hundred landowners, but the largest
parcel of about 4,000 acres has an asking price of $8,000 per acre.
That’s more than 37 percent higher than the $5,820-per-acre price paid
about six years ago when Polk County and the Southwest Florida Water
Management District split the cost of buying 1,267 acres on Lakeland’s
Lake Hancock. They are now in the process of building an observation deck
into Lake Hancock and expect to start on an Environmental Education Center
soon.
Putting the Crooked Lake West property on the Florida Forever list is only
the first step. Next is putting together purchasing partnerships that may
include county, state, federal and private groups. For instance, The
Nature Conservancy, a private, nonprofit organization, recently took the
lead in adding more than 3,100 acres near Avon Park, and 5,529 acres in
Osceola County, to the Florida Forever list.
Once deals are reached between purchasing partners and landowners, the
governor and Cabinet must still sign off.
“Now, the next step is negotiating,” said Yasmin Wallas, Florida
Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. She said the state
could try to buy conservation easements, a less-expensive method of saving
land that pays landowners for giving perpetual conservation rights to the
state while retaining the right to use the land in its current condition.
In June 2005, the state spent $1.2 million, or about $1,380 per acre, for
a conservation easement on 870 acres of the Lake Wales Ridge that borders
the Avon Park Air Force Range.
However the ridge land is saved, conservationists say it’s time.
“The habitat and the birds are in trouble, and the more it can be
protected before it gets converted into who knows what, the better,” said
David Pashley, vice president for conservation programs for the
Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy, which listed the ridge as the
nation’s ninth-most-threatened bird habitat in a study last month.
Pashley admits that scrub habitat doesn’t evoke enthusiasm like land with
beautiful vistas and pretty flowers.
“Scrub habitat has a bad rap. Even saying it — scrub — is even
degrading,” he said. “But if you want to see a Florida scrub-jay, there’s
nowhere else in the world to do that.”
Besides the endangered scrub-jay, a small blue bird that lives in families
and only in scrub, the land provides habitat for the also-endangered
red-cockaded woodpecker; the swallow-tailed kite; endangered reptiles such
as the eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise; plus sand skinks,
whooping cranes and unique plants such as scrub morning glory, scrub
blazing star and showy dawnflower.
There’s another benefit to preservation, Pashley said: an increase in
eco-tourists, who come to see endangered birds.
“I don’t know if anyone has done a study [on Florida bird-watching
economics], but when someone comes to Florida for bird-watching, they buy
a plane ticket, rent a car, stay in a hotel room, eat in restaurants,” he
said.
Nationally, studies suggest he’s right. Bird-watching and wildlife viewing
by an estimated 66 million people helps fuel a $43 billion business in the
United States, generating 466,000 jobs and resulting in trip-related
expenses of $8.5 billion, according to a 2006 study by the Outdoor
Industry Foundation.
And, hoping to draw those tourists, the state has designated 38 miles of
State Road 17 as Ridge Scenic Highway for its views, rolling hills and
acres of citrus. The segment runs from Haines City to Frostproof.

Illustration: PHOTO: In Polk County last week, birds prepare to land at
Crooked Lake. The state’s Crooked Lake West project includes 2 miles of
lake frontage, plus scrub habitats and 13 other natural communities.
.
PHOTO: Polk environmental official Tabitha Biehl-Gabbard views wildlife
last week at Crooked Lake, a state-designated `outstanding’ water body.
RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
.
PHOTO: A sandhill crane forages last week at Crooked Lake, which the state
wants to save from development by buying parcels of land nearby.
PHOTOS BY RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL
.
MAP: Crooked Lake West
ORLANDO SENTINEL
.
MAP: Lake Wales Ridge
It is home to one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in
the U.S. and is counted as the 9th-most-threatened bird habitat in the
U.S., according to a recent study.
Top 10 threatened bird habits in the U.S.
1. Hawaiian forests
2. Open ocean/seabird nesting islands
3. Sagebrush
4. Edwards Plateau habitat
5. Southwest riparian habitat
6. Tallgrass prairie
7. Coastal beaches and marsh
8. Gulf Coast prairie
9. Lake Wales oak ridge scrub
10. Mixed Iongleaf-pine/bottomland hardwood forest
SOURCES: American Bird Conservancy, Polk County government, Florida
Department of Environmental Protection
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