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Lake Wales Ridge - History

historic photo of oranges being hauled in wagons

A unique geological feature, the Lake Wales Ridge rose from ancient beach and dune systems that have stood above sea level for over a million years. The long, narrow ridge was uplifted about 300 feet above sea level and is one of the oldest natural scrub communities in Florida.

Evidence of late prehistoric Belle Glade sites was found around the lakes and seep springs of this sandy habitat in central Florida. Much later, settlers worked in citrus groves and timbered the longleaf pines. The remaining trees were tapped for rosin to make turpentine. By 1887, railroad access allowed the citrus industry to export fruit and forestry products. Railroads also brought tourists to resorts that sprang up along the region's numerous lakes.

Devastating freezes in the 1980s drove the citrus industry farther south, and many groves were replaced with housing developments. In the late 1980s, a group of conservationists designed a system of sanctuaries to protect what remained of the Lake Wales Ridge. Since then, local, state, federal and private organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, have purchased 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 ensure the long-term protection of native plants, animals and natural communities of this unique region.

view of Volunteers learning how to spot the Florida scrub-jay.

Today, the Ridge Rangers, an active group of volunteers, helps restore and protect the many rare plants and animals at the site.

The Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area consists of 19 separate tracts scattered along 75 miles of the Lake Wales Ridge. The Lake Placid Scrub tract, the first acquisition for this WEA, was purchased under the CARL program in 1993 from August Tobler, a local cattleman. This tract had been platted as a subdivision, but was acquired before any improvements were made.

The Royce Unit, purchased in late 2001, was a ranch owned by the Royce family for about 70 years. Beginning in the 1940s this land was converted to pasture for cattle and ditched for drainage. By the late 1980s about 230 acres were converted to citrus. For several years prior to state purchase, the Royce Ranch was an active skeet shooting site. The McJunkin site, adjacent to the Archbold Biological Station, was purchased in 2002. Biologists from Archbold have been studying Florida scrub-jays on this site for over 25 years. The area had been grazed by cattle but not converted to improved pasture and is an important wildlife corridor between Archbold and the Lake Placid Scrub tract. Additional acquisitions will continue into the foreseeable future.