Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area

According to archeologist Robert Austin, the first evidence of Native Americans on the Lake Wales Ridge dates from the Early Archaic, about 8000 to 9000 years ago. Before then the area was probably too barren and dry to attract people. Native American use of the Lake Wales Ridge increased during the Middle to Late Archaic (about 2500 to 8000 years ago) when the ridge gradually became more like it is today and lakes began to fill with water year-round. Seep springs emerged from the ridge slopes with the increase in rainfall. Many late prehistoric Belle Glade sites have been found around the lakes and seep springs. Indian mounds have been found on some tracts. As far as we know, Native Americans living on the Lake Wales Ridge did not farm or raise domesticated animals. They lived off the natural bounty of the land: deer, gray squirrel, alligator, gopher tortoise, fish, all kinds of aquatic turtles, and a large number of native plants.

photo hauling oranges
Florida Photo Archives
Hauling oranges from
the interior of Florida,
ca. 1912.

A few generations ago the Lake Wales Ridge was still a wilderness dotted with lakes and traversed by creeks and streams. The sandhills were described as "miserable" and "good for nothing but to get lost in."

Citrus cultivation began at the end of the last century and gradually sandhill and scrub was replaced by citrus groves. Longleaf pine was logged for its lumber valued for boat building and housing, and the remaining trees were tapped for rosin and turpentine. When the railroad reached the ridge in 1887, growing fruit for export, and the lumbering and naval stores industries increased dramatically. Railroads also brought tourists to relax at resorts that sprang up along the region's numerous lakes. In the 1980s devastating freezes drove the citrus industry farther south, and many former groves were replaced with housing developments especially geared to retirees.

photo view from Citris Tower
Florida Photo Archives
View from the Citris Tower,
Clermont, February 1962.

During the late 1980s, a group of 40 scientists gathered to design a system of sanctuaries that would protect what remained of the Lake Wales Ridge. Since then local, state, federal and private organizations including The Nature Conservancy have spent more than $75 million in purchasing the best remaining scrub land. The Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Working Group, a consortium of nonprofit organizations, federal and state organizations, and local governments, was founded in 1991 to insure the long-term protection of the native plants, animals, and natural communities of this unique region of Florida.

The first acquisition of the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area, the Lake Placid Scrub tract was purchased under the CARL program in 1993. The former owner was August Tobler, a local cattleman. The Lake Placid Scrub tract had been platted as a subdivision but was acquired from the developer before any improvements were made or lots sold.

photo hammock by the lake
Betsy Purdum
Hammock by the Lake, Royce Unit

Many of the tracts are old subdivisions and have varying degrees of problems as a result: checkerboard ownership, dumping, and non-native invasive plants including cogon grass and Old World climbing fern.

The Royce Unit, purchased in late 2001, was a ranch owned by the Royce family for about 70 years. Some of the land was converted to bahia pasture for cattle and ditched for drainage beginning in the 1940s. In the late 1980s about 230 acres was converted to citrus. For several years prior to state purchase, the Royce Ranch was an active skeet shooting site.

One of the newer acquisitions, the McJunkin site, adjacent to Archbold Biological Station, was purchased in 2002. Biologists from Archbold have been studying scrub jays on this site for over 25 years. The area was grazed by cattle but was not converted to improved pasture and is an important wildlife corridor between Archbold Biological Station and the Lake Placid Scrub tract.

FWC Facts:
Florida ranks second in the nation for the number of residents who take trips to view wildlife. (1.4 million)

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