For the Love of the Scrub — and Lake Wales Ridge Saving Florida's Ancient Ridge Ecosystem

Lake Wales Ridge
The scrub jay is Florida’s only endemic bird, and 90% of the original population has been lost. © Photos: Florida Natural Areas Inventory

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.

Lake Wales Ridge
Florida’s scrub is home to 45 protected wildlife species and more than 30 rare plants.

To the untrained eye, the scrub looks like a forest of tiny proportions—chest-high brush tucked amid dinosaur-sized sand dunes. Looking deeper into the vegetation and shifting soil, there lays a world unlike any other. About 45 state or federally protected wildlife species and more than 30 rare plants, including a species of scrub mint, call the area home. The threatened scrub jay—Florida’s only endemic bird—finds shelter amid the brambly brush; the threatened sand skink swims through the sand out of sight like a legless lizard; the gopher tortoise digs a burrow that may be used by up to 300 other species; and the extremely rare yellow-blooming Avon Park harebell clusters in the three lone populations left in the world.

“Continuing loss, fragmentation and degradation of scrub habitat has resulted in a decline of greater than 90% of the original pre-settlement population of Florida scrub jays,” according to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. The species is one that lives in families, with siblings helping to raise younger offspring.

More than 200 lakes dot the quick-draining sandy region as well, putting the area’s water quality at high risk for nitrates and pesticides, found in elevated amounts in groundwater and lake water. The U.S. Geological Survey calls the 10-mile-wide strip “extremely vulnerable to contamination,” despite efforts in the 1980s and “90s to create Ridge-specific restrictions on the use of agricultural chemicals.

Conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy and local, state and federal wildlife officials have worked together in recent years to save land not yet lost to farming and, more recently, homebuilding. Conservation land purchases and an increase in conservation easements, which allow landowners to use the land but restrict developing it further, have moved forward despite skyrocketing real estate costs.

The Florida Forever fund, reserved for state conservation efforts and joint partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others, has proven valuable, with $1.8 billion spent to date, some of it preserving conservation lands in the Ridge and making it one of Florida’s highest conservation priorities. Federal officials designated the multitract Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge as the first refuge devoted to the preservation of rare plant species, barring public access. Homebuilders now pay penalties or restitution for the destruction of gopher tortoise burrows or sand skink habitats.

In some cases, these homebuilders have even assisted in conservation efforts, such as in the master-planned community of Harmony, where 70% of the 11,000 acres owned by Starwood Development will remain as open conservation lands. The development is located in the Central Florida region just outside the Ridge boundaries. It is the kind of cooperation conservationists say is necessary if Florida’s threatened species are to survive.

“The visionaries behind the town of Harmony realized that the land was already home to native plants and wildlife, and consciously sought to blend man’s need for future growth with a respectful consideration for its original occupants,” says Melanie Lentz-Janney, spokesperson for the community.

Scientists, meanwhile, continue to study the fate of agricultural chemicals in the area and effects on the biological communities—and work to save what’s left.

“The future of the region hangs in the balance,” Martin says. “Will we have the foresight to buffer and connect conservation areas? Or will we allow development to ensnare our natural areas, rendering land management effectively impossible?”