ranch history heroPhoto by: Haoyu Li

History of Buck Island Ranch

Buck Island, a name attributed to the Seminoles, was originally an island of Florida dry prairie with seasonal wetlands and connecting sloughs. Surrounding the island was an extensive sheet-flow of wet prairies and savannas with scattered palm and oak hammocks. Known as the Indian Prairie, these lands and waters flowed to the southeast from Lake Istokpoga to Lake Okeechobee. The bay swamp in the southwest of the ranch was fed by seepage stream called Hickory Branch. Aerial photographs from 1940 show native communities largely intact except for ditches connecting some seasonal wetlands and two north-south canals; Kuhn Grade, and a ditch that later became the C41 Canal.

In the early 1900s, the north end of the modern Buck Island Ranch was managed by Tropical Farms for row crops. The remainder of the land was owned by the Durrance family from 1948-1968. The central dry prairie island was cleared, converted to warm season forage grasses, mostly Bahia, to be improved pasture. This resulted in habitat and species loss. Dry prairie is now one of the most endangered grassland types in North America. The surrounding wet prairies and savannas, known as the south, east and west marshes of Buck Island Ranch, were harder to drain, less-intensively ditched, never fertilized, and only partially converted to non-native forage grasses. They are now classified as semi-native (or unimproved) pastures.

The ranch was heavily modified during 1940-1970. The U.S Army Corps of Engineer’s Central and Southern Florida Project (CSFP) expanded the capacity of regional canals north of Lake Okeechobee to reduce flooding and to use the lake as water storage for agriculture south of the lake. The CSFP included the C41 Harney Pond Canal that was dredged through Buck Island Ranch in the 1950s, lowering the groundwater table and facilitating ranch-wide drainage via more ditches.

john d macarthur

l to r. Dan Childs (Ranch Manager), Dr. Tony Cunha (University of Florida), and John D. MacArthur. Buck Island Ranch 1968.

In 1968, John D. MacArthur purchased the Ranch for his personal use from the Durrance family, adding Tropical Farms acreage to the north and recruiting Dan Childs to be Ranch Manager.

Under the ownership of John D. MacArthur, from 1968 to 1978, the drainage, irrigation, and fertilization of improved pastures were expanded. Hundreds of miles of additional ditches were added in a ‘two-way’ control system. During the winter dry season, water was pumped from the Harney Pond Canal via large pumps, and gravity fed via an extensive network of ditches and swales, all equipped with riser culverts and boards to disperse seepage irrigation for white clover and pasture grasses. The same ditch and riser culvert system, with the boards removed, allowed for rapid drainage during the summer wet season, reducing wetland hydroperiods, increasing peak flows downstream into Lake Okeechobee, and decreasing water storage capacity. Fertilizer was applied on improved pastures for ~20-30 years until 1986. Phosphorus fertilizer was applied at the recommended high rates, creating a legacy in the soil. After 1986, fertilizer was nitrogen only, with lime to reduce pH. At Buck Island Ranch, and regionally, drainage and fertilization resulted in large-scale manipulation of hydrology and nutrient dynamics from the local to the regional scale. This set the stage for extensive research by Archbold, still ongoing, to look for solutions to ameliorate these legacy challenges.

bir maps

Society for Rangeland Mangement. Swain et al 2013. doi: 10.2111/RANGELANDS-D-13-00053.1

On MacArthur’s death in 1978, Buck Island Ranch became part of the assets of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation based in Chicago, Illinois. An interesting side story is that the terms of the Foundation were reportedly drawn up on the rocking chairs of the porch of the ranch house at Buck Island Ranch. The Foundation operated the ranch under Mr. Childs’ guidance for the next 10 years. In 1988, looking for a long-term solution that would meet the philanthropic intent of both organizations, the MacArthur Foundation entered into a 30-year lease agreement with Archbold to operate the ranch as a full-scale working ranch, dedicated to research, education, and conservation, to be called the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center. During the 30-year lease, Archbold took full advantage of this unique opportunity, building a national reputation for agroecology research that combined science with the real-world knowledge of what it takes, financially and logistically, to run a working cattle ranch. In 2016 the Ranch was selected to join the Long-term Agroecology Research network of the US Department of Agriculture, one of 18 preeminent locations nationwide for long-term research in sustainable agriculture. Gene Lollis has served Archbold as Ranch Manager since 1996, working closely with science leadership, Dr. Betsey Boughton, who has been Director of the Agroecology Research Program since 2010. This close partnership between science and agriculture is beautifully highlighted in the film ‘Cowboys and Scientists’.

2018 board meeting buck island ranch plaque

As the 30-year lease came to a close, the MacArthur Foundation agreed to sell Buck Island Ranch to Archbold to allow for continuance of the science, education, and conservation mission into the future. In recognition of Archbold’s major programmatic achievements this was a bargain sale. Archbold completed the purchase of the Ranch from the Foundation in November 2018, and satisfied its mortgage in February 2023. Archbold operates the Ranch using its former name, Buck Island Ranch.

With ownership, the future stage is set for Archbold to continue our understanding of how to maintain economic viability while retaining and restoring ecosystem services from the mosaic of pastures, wetlands, and scattered hammocks that make up the Ranch. The Ranch is Archbold’s wonderful natural laboratory for saving rare species, sustaining grasslands, protecting wildlife corridors, and addressing climate change. This work is crucial for Buck Island Ranch, for many other privately managed ranches in the iconic headwaters of the Everglades, and for the viability of agriculture and grazing lands in Florida and nationwide.

Photo: l. to r. Gene Lollis (Ranch Manager), Mary Hufty (Board Chair), and Terrie Lollis. Board Meeting, Nov 29, 2018. Celebrating completion of the Buck Island Ranch purchase and celebrating 25 years of Gene's service to Archbold.