Preserving Nature for Future Generations
Polk’s Environmental Lands Program acquires, preserves, protects, manages and restores endangered and environmentally sensitive lands, water resources and important wildlife habitats. Acquired properties are used for passive outdoor recreational purposes provided that such uses will not disturb or degrade the environmental quality for which the site was acquired
Concerned about the loss of native habitat, a citizen grassroots effort in the early 1990s promoted funding environmental lands acquisition and management program to protect water, wildlife and wilderness resources. Polk County is fortunate to be the headwaters of several rivers, contains portions of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern along with many of the scrub/sandhill ridges. At the request of this citizen’s initiative, the Polk County Board of County Commissioners placed a referendum question to the public to ask if they would agree to levy a tax on themselves to fund a local environmental lands program. A majority voted in favor of this concept, so with the success of the November 8, 1994 Referendum, Polk County funded an environmental land acquisition and management program. The original levy expired in 2015.
In November 2022, Polk County voters approved a new referendum for a property tax to generate funds for land purchases over a 20-year period. The proposal drew support from 58.4 percent of voters.
The purpose of the Environmental Lands Program is to acquire, preserve, protect, manage and restore endangered and environmentally sensitive lands, water resources and important wildlife habitat as part of Polk County conservation. Acquired properties may be used for passive outdoor recreational purposes provided that such uses will not disturb or degrade the environmental quality for which the site was acquired.
Polk County Environmental Lands Ordinances provide the legal framework from which the Environmental Lands Program must operate. An advisory committee was established to review and recommend land easements and purchases to the Board.
Polk County, through its Environmental Lands Program, works closely with nonprofit organizations, local, state and federal level agencies. The partnerships that have been developed over the years have resulted in a great benefit to the residents of Polk County. For every dollar spent from the Polk County Environmental Lands Program for acquisition projects, three dollars were brought in by these partnerships. In addition, to acquiring land in partnerships, we have been successful in partnering for infrastructure projects to enhance visitors experience on environmental lands. Some of these projects include funding from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, such as for the enhancements to Lakeland Highlands Scrub allowing the construction of a boardwalk to view the marsh, and the addition of picnic shelters.
Natural Systems Management
The Polk County Environmental Lands Program has acquired more than 26,000 acres of diverse conservation land in Polk County – a substantial and irreplaceable part of the public’s natural heritage. However, simply acquiring land does not ensure preservation of its resources. The remaining natural systems must be actively managed.
Invasive Plant Management
Florida’s natural areas are subject to disturbance by invasive plant and animal species. Particularly due to warm climate, widespread waterways, and sunny environment, invasive exotic plants have been documented throughout the state.
Plants considered invasive exotic plants are species that are not native to Florida, reproduce aggressively, and out compete our native plants for water, light and space.
In natural areas, invasive exotic species are undesirable because they disrupt natural processes, such as fire and hydrology. They also displace native plants and animals.
Land Acquisition Management
To assist with the implementation of the Environmental Lands program, the Board appointed an advisory board, the Conservation Land Acquisition Selection Advisory Committee (CLASAC). Membership consists of one county commissioner, and representatives from the agricultural community, environmental groups, outdoor recreation groups, sportsman groups and professionals with water resource and land management/use experience. They are charged with aiding the county in the design and orderly implementation of the local land acquisition program in Polk County.
Once a site is acquired, interim management begins. This includes site security, debris removal, exotic species removal and temporary parking areas and walkways, if feasible, until a management plan is finalized. A natural resource inventory is conducted on the property and nature-based recreation opportunities are evaluated for compatibility within the site. A public meeting is held to explain the site’s important natural resources, discuss nature-based recreation opportunities, and to receive comment from the public in order to develop the site’s management plan. The proposed management plan is also commented on by CLASAC. The Board reviews the management plan and with input a management plan is finalized. The management plan is reviewed periodically to accommodate changing conditions. The Polk County Environmental Lands Public Use Ordinance (Ordinance 08-003 as amended) provides the overall framework for acceptable behavior while visiting environmental lands.
Some species have become so rare that state and federal governments have listed them as endangered (E), threatened (T), or species of special concern (SSC), such as the Florida scrub-jay (T), gopher tortoise (SSC), bald eagle (T), sand skink (T), and fox squirrel (SSC). Managing agencies must consider the effects of their management techniques on those rare species.
Other monitoring efforts include seasonal wildlife surveys, vegetation surveys and hydrological monitoring. Ecological monitoring is performed to gather information to access wildlife and vegetative communities. Monitoring is the cornerstone for adaptive management, which links management activities to minimizing risk to species, communities and ecosystems.
Before there were roads, canals, modern agriculture or big cities, lightning-sparked fires frequently swept unchecked across Florida’s landscape. Over thousands of years, many native habitats evolved under the influence of fire and now depend on fire to survive. Land managers mimic these natural fires to restore and maintain healthy natural systems.
In modern times, fire has been increasingly excluded from natural lands, causing a dramatic decline in the extent and condition of fire-dependent habitats. As a result, many unique plants and animals needing these habitats are disappearing, and flammable vegetation has accumulated to unnaturally high and hazardous levels in many areas.
We are actively working to restore and maintain fire-dependent habitats, and to reduce the likelihood of destructive wildfires.