Split Oak Forest - Habitat and Management
Habitats provide the food, water, shelter and space that animals need to thrive and reproduce. Eleven natural communities provide habitat for wildlife at Split Oak Forest.
In addition to pine flatwoods characterized by an open canopy forest, and hardwood hammocks, with their ancient oaks and relatively open understory, Split Oak Forest contains several less common plant communities. These include oak scrub (with low canopy of myrtle oak, Chapman's oak, and sand live oak), and the sandhill community, consisting of scattered longleaf, pine and turkey oak with wiregrass and palmetto understory.
Split Oak Forest is bordered by Lake Hart to the north and Lake Mary Jane to the northeast. The wetland fringes of both lakes are habitat for a large number of grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. The area also includes cypress swamps and wet prairies, which are seasonally flooded transitional areas between freshwater marshes and pine flatwoods.
Split Oak Forest WEA was acquired with funds received through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Mitigation Park Program. FWC manages the site through an interlocal agreement with Osceola and Orange counties, and the counties granted a conservation easement to the agency.
The management goal on the area is to restore and maintain the habitats critical to the long-term benefit of state and federally listed upland species, particularly the gopher tortoise. Prescribed burns are one of the chief management tools used on this area. Fire is crucial to maintain the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem. Numerous protected species, including the gopher tortoise and Sherman's fox squirrel, make their homes in this fire dependent habitat. Prescribed burns reduce fuel loads of pine needles and oak leaves, return valuable nutrients to the soils, and keep understory hardwoods at bay. Curtailing understory and midstory hardwood growth in longleaf pine habitat is crucial to maintaining the open landscape that is necessary for the species that depend on this natural community to thrive.
Biologists also work to control invasive plants such as Chinese tallow, camphor tree, common guava, tropical soda apple and Japanese climbing fern, among others.
In addition to the management work described here, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rely on a wide range of techniques to ensure that natural areas throughout the state stay healthy for wildlife and inviting to visitors.