The air that swept across the parched inland prairie was soft and cool, with just a hint of the humidity that soaks Florida in the summer months. Wildflowers encouraged by a rare recent rain — brilliant red buckeye and purple larkspur — peppered acres of grass, still brown from the winter dry season. Cattle browsed in the grass, and the distinctive call of a sandhill crane carried on the wind that flowed down from ancient sand dunes in the distance.
The Everglades Headwaters National
Wildlife Refuge (EHNWR), part of an arid, rolling landscape just minutes from Orlando’s crowded
theme parks, does not fit the iconic image of Florida’s three “S’s” (sea, sand
and swamp). Yet the refuge, planned to encompass parts of the Lake Wales Ridge
sand dunes and the Kissimmee River Basin, is a keystone in the effort to save
the Everglades — vast wetlands
just west of Miami — and one of the most ambitious land and wildlife
conservation programs in the state’s history.
Declared one of three
wetlands of global importance by Unesco in 1971, the Everglades is also the
source of drinking water for approximately five million people in south
Florida. Thus, protecting the Kissimmee River, the primary source of water for
Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, has become a paramount goal for
conservationists. Under assault from developers who wanted to drain it and
farmers who polluted it with pesticides, restoration of the Everglades has been
a national priority since former US President Bill Clinton signed a formal
clean-up plan in 2000.
“The Everglades is an
international treasure and that’s partly because unique plants and animals call
it home,” said US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. “But 69 of these species are
threatened and endangered. [EHNWR] is critical because it will preserve habitat
in an innovative way that protects the land and ranching heritage.”
After years of
wrangling with private landowners, sportsmen and local politicians, the US Department
of Interior established the EHNWR on 18 January, solidifying protection for the
wildflower-dappled prairie — an area key to the survival of the Everglades
“Aside from sandhills
and scub, the [area encompassed by EHNWR has] black water swamps, oak hammocks,
dry prairie habitat and pine flat woods,” refuge manager Charlie Pelizza said.
“Seeing that, it was evident how it all connected. We had everything needed for
the conservation of the [Kissimmee River] watershed on this one landscape.”
The refuge was
launched with a donation of just 10 acres of land from the US-based Nature
Conservancy, but could eventually grow to more than 150,000 acres, connecting with
conservation land near Naples, 175 miles to the southwest, and on through to
the Big Cypress National Preserve
and Everglades National Park that extends to the southern tip of the peninsula.
This would give wildlife an unbroken pathway across the centre section of one
of the most populous states in the union. Isolated populations of plants and
animals could establish genetic contact with larger communities, creating
healthier and more resilient breeding pools.
The area encompassed
by EHNWR alone has more than 40 endangered species, some of them found nowhere
else in the world. In addition to black bears, the region is home to red
cockaded woodpeckers, the Florida scrub jay, sandhill cranes, Florida
grasshopper sparrows and the enormous crested caracara.
This is a side of
Florida seldom seen even by residents -- it is what natives call “the real
Florida” -- and activities range from slow respites to hang-onto-your-potatoes
adventures. With a little luck, you may even see a rare and elusive Florida
panther slipping past you on his way to dinner.
Where to experience the real Florida
Located about half an hour southeast of Walt
Disney World, the 4,700-acre Forever Florida preserve is a virtual showcase of the ecosystems included in the EHNWR.
It is a privately-owned conservation area immediately
adjacent to the current EHNWR footprint,
and will eventually come into the refuge’s boundaries. You can go by a motorized swamp buggy safari, on horseback or literally
fly through the trees on a series of seven ziplines that reach up to 68ft high
at speeds up to 30mph . The latest addition here is the “zipcycle” — a
pedal-powered conveyance that runs along a cypress canopy zipline. There is even
a working cattle ranch with a herd of Spanish cattle brought by the
Conquistadors and the ponies used to herd them.
Wallaby Ranch offers tandem hang-glider
rides that soar up above the Lake Wales Ridge. You strap into a tandem glider —
a delta-shaped kite with a control bar and suspension — with an instructor. An
ultralight towplane pulls you up to 3,000ft in the air, and then you slowly
glide back to the ground. It is a great way to see the ENWHR environment as a
sandhill crane or caracara might view it.
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens conservatory works to preserve the endangered plants of the Lake
Wales Ridge, the remnant of a 1.5 million-year-old shoreline. Enchanted by the
area’s beauty, Edward Bok, a longtime editor of Ladies Home Journal, and his
wife, Mary Curtis Bok, purchased the land in 1921, and hired famed landscape
architect Frederick Law Olmstead to create a garden and a 205ft tower
containing a 60-bell carillon. The stunning Art Deco tower sits on Iron
Mountain, the fourth-highest point in peninsular Florida.
Boggy Creek Airboats
Airboats are loud, but still a good way to see
the shallow wetlands of the EHNWR. Through Boggy
Creek Airboat Rides, you will see much of the
iconic wildlife the area was designed to protect: alligators, turtles, egrets,
herons, anhingas and more. Part of the tour includes a quieter, low-speed idle
through wildlife areas, but when they punch the throttle to whip though the
thick Florida atmosphere, hold on.