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“The Conservation Landscape of Archbold Biological Station”

Hilary Swain 2008.

If you want a glorious vista over the Lake Wales Ridge and the Florida scrub, climb to the top of the fire tower on the Red Hill at Archbold Biological Station. Archbold land stretches far in all directions, now totaling 8,841 acres, providing great security for the globally imperiled species and scrub communities sheltered within. Beyond Archbold boundaries there are scenes of hope and despair for the conservationist. North of the old sand pines on the Red Hill one can see Lake Annie and Lake Placid nestled deeply in trees and orange groves. Between the lakes lies the Lake Placid Wildlife and Environmental Area, just over 3,000-acres bought by the state in the 1993. This state-land provides a tremendous buffer for Archbold from the Placid Lakes subdivision where the last remnants of scrub in its suburban parcels inexorably relinquishing small troves of plants and animals in the path of development. But east of Lake Placid the town plans new developments stretching south down Old SR8 to SR70. Highlands County designated industrial zoning on the southwest corner of US 27 and US 70, right on our border. Like many other field stations nationwide we are, despite our considerable size and increasing acreage of nearby protected areas, under continued threat from land use change and conversion in the surrounding landscape.

Looking east a deep green sea of citrus blankets the ridge to its eastern edge, continuous but for Gould Road, another small but precious gem of scrub saved by the state of Florida. Ironically we may look back on the days of big citrus fondly, as declining agricultural values, new diseases such as citrus canker and citrus greening, and real estate pressures mean once profitable groves are being abandoned. One recognizes, for all the conservation challenges and habitat loss posed by citrus, how much harder it will to manage our conservation lands when surrounded by subdivisions of Florida’s never-ending housing boom, rather than neighboring orange trees. This is true for all the other recent state and federal scrub land acquisitions up and down the Lake Wales Ridge, with urban housing presenting continual management challenges on our borders in terms of fire, exotics, and encroachment.

Turning south with binoculars and on a clear day one can see as far as the vast lands along Fisheating Creek, some of which are the subject of state protection under one of the larger conservation easements in Florida; the remainder of this valuable conservation landscape is, as yet, unprotected. The sound of trucks roaring down SR 27 south to Miami remind one of the disruption and dislocation of roads in the landscape; there have been two young male panthers killed on this stretch of road in the last few years. Many black bears die needlessly here too, as they move from the bear-sized complex of Archbold/XL ranch and head off across the hazards of SR27 to the deep bayheads of the Hendrie and Smoak properties. The intensive plant nursery complex located immediately south of the Station has added considerably to traffic along old SR 8. Detailed tracking of collared black bears has given us wonderful insights into landscape connectivity between Archbold Biological Station and surrounding private and public conservation lands, as well as a better understanding of the negative impacts of roads on this connectivity. Loss of any of these precious but tenuous landscape linkages diminishes our conservation value; no site can function as an island entire of itself.

Sweeping west, one drinks in the view across one of the last, largest roadless areas in peninsula Florida, extending to the county line and beyond.  The acquisition of the Archbold Reserve buffered the length of the Stations’ western boundary lying along the west slope of the Ridge. It also linked us to the neighboring XL Ranch, owned and managed by the Lightsey family, recognized as one of Florida’s great conservation stewards who have protected XL with a private conservation easement. Beyond XL Ranch the vast prairies of the De Soto plain stretch out into the distance, dissected by Fisheating Creek, and encompassed by Bluehead Ranch which is contemplating a mixture of new housing development and agricultural set asides. Even further west lies Brighthour Ranch, already protected by a conservation easement.

In future, when we scan the horizons of these same lands that surround Archbold Biological Station, we will, I am sure, be appalled at what we lost, but amazed at what we managed to save.

regional land acq map from Roberta.