Florida Scenic Highway 17 winds north-south through the middle of the Sunshine State, through cities and towns rich with history of Seminole Indians, Spanish cattle herders and, of course, Mickey Mouse. Rooftops by the tens of thousands have sprouted like mushrooms across the region, where population growth boomed more than 250% from 1970 to 2007 in some small cities. Here, the slick pavement undulates like waves of black ribbon through rolling hills dotted with citrus trees. Grapefruit. Honeybells. Tangelos. Lemons. About 25% of the 100-mile stretch down the middle of the state—the highest topographic area in Florida and known as the Lake Wales Ridge—is covered in citrus groves alone.
Where urban sprawl has yet to pave and agriculture efforts never took root, one can still find a unique, intact habitat, evidence of an ancient land where one of the nation’s most concentrated collections of rare and endangered species struggle to maintain their existence. An ambitious hope to save what’s left remains alive in local environmentalists, despite the fact that about 85% of the original 80,000-acre unique habitat called “scrub” has already been lost to development and agriculture.
“Protecting the Lake Wales Ridge is one of the most daunting conservation challenges in the U.S., but the high biodiversity and endemism of the ecosystem leave us no choice,” says Tricia Martin, Peninsular Florida programs director for The Nature Conservancy. Martin has worked on the Ridge for 15 years.
The Lake Wales Ridge extends from Orange to Highland counties and has served as prime real estate for homebuilders in the last 15 years. In 2006 alone, the four Ridge counties issued more than 31,000 building permits.
The Ridge itself formed some 2.5 million years ago according to scientists, rising 300 feet above current sea level and spanning into a much larger beach. After the Ice Age, sea level rise shrunk the landmass into a narrow peninsula populated with a savanna-like span that nourished animals such as mastodons, giant armadillos and saber-toothed felines. Archaeologists still find remains of mastodons in pockets of the Ridge. And the sandy soil fostered the scrub and, with it, lifeforms found nowhere else.
“Plants and animals separated from the mainland evolved their own unique characteristics,” Martin says.