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Two More Large Tracts of Land Nominated for Preservation Near Lake Wales

Parcels Important to Build "Big Green Network," Put Limits on Sprawling Growth

The vision of a "Big Green Network" of environmental lands flanking Lake Wales to the east and west moved a small step closer to reality this week as Polk County's environmental lands program addressed the possibility of acquiring a large tract of land just northeast of the city.

Curtesy Florida State Parks

Pine flatwoods such as these provide an important link in the larger Florida Wildlife Corridor and the hoped-for "Big Green Network" of environmental lands proposed in the Lake Wales Envisioned plan.

The expanse of lands totaling 1,195 acres spanning Masterpiece Road and partially surrounding the former Masterpiece Gardens tourist attraction belong to corporations or individual members of the pioneering Updike family, longtime Lake Wales residents. The property has been in the family for many generations.

A second large parcel lying just to the north near Lake Pierce was also nominated.

The Conservation Lands Acquisition Selection Advisory Committee (CLASAC) nominated the two tracts to the county commission after both received high scores from a Technical Advisory Group (TAG) assessment for its natural qualities.

The Masterpiece Road tract contains several types of rare or endangered plants, including one, Ziziphus, that was once believed to be extinct. They are among the rare species that evolved on the remnant islands, all that was left on Florida left during warmer eras between more than a dozen ice ages.

Courtesy FWC

Gopher tortoises are considered a "keystone species" because their burrows also provide shelter and protection from fires for a number of other important species living on Florida's "Ancient Islands."

Tabitha Biehl, who is the manager of the county's Land and Water Natural Areas, says the tract is still "very early" in the acquisition process. The next step in that process, she says, will occur at an April 16 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.

The TAG group, Biehl said, was particularly impressed that the site consists largely of yellow sand soils, most of which were developed for citrus a century ago. Those soils typify the native sandhill ecosystems, different from the endangered scrub. "Very few remain," Beihl said.

The possibility of protecting the largest known population of Ziziphus in existence is a significant element of the purchase proposal, with about 600 individual plants representing the genetic diversity needed for it to survive. "It's reproducing on it's own in the wild," Biehl said.

Other rare or endangered species present on the site include scrub lupine, pawpaw, native milkweed, and sand skinks, a type of legless lizard that "swims" beneath the surface of the sand, believed to be the inspiration of the popular book and movie series "Dune."

Courtesy FWC

The endangered Florida Panther is among species known to roam the areas proposed for permanent protection under the county's CLASAC program.

The property is also believed to be home to fox squirrels and flying squirrels, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes. It lies adjacent to a mosaic of other protected habitat that shelters endangered Florida panthers as well as black bears.

The Lake Pierce tract also lies adjacent to other environmental lands, including the nearby Lake Kissimmee State Park, the David Allen Broussard tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, and the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

The CLASAC lands program was renewed by voters in November 2022, and is already working to acquire lands, which must be offered by willing sellers. The program requires independent appraisals. It renews the original CLASAC program that was approved by voters in 1994, assigning a half-mill sliver of property taxes to the effort.

The original program, also authorized for 20 years, resulted in saving more than 20 different sites for conservation purposes, including several in the Lake Wales and east Polk area. Among those are the Crooked Lake Prairie, Crooked Lake Sandhill, and the Sumica tract on the northern side of Lake Walk-in-Water.

The nomination follows that of the 749-acre Friedlander ranch property just southeast of Lake Wales, which was approved by the TAG group and the CLASAC committee in early December. That property abuts the Nature Conservancy's Tiger Creek Preserve and connects to the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.

The Friedlander tract has already been approved by the county commission and staff is currently seeking grants or partnerships that will aid in the acquisition. Both the Friedlander and Updike properties fit into a statewide effort to create wildlife corridors that allow species to maintain the genetic diversity needed to allow populations to remain healthy.

The Lake Wales Envisioned plan, a community-driven effort to conceive of a city that would maintain livable conditions within definable boundaries, includes the concept of a "Big Green Network" of public lands embracing the city, providing critical habitat and recreational opportunities for citizens. The county's CLASAC and several state-funded programs are looked upon as the way to achieve that goal.


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