A Disney conservation fund is lending a hand to one of Central Florida’s unique habitats.
The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund has given a $25,000 grant to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for a three-year restoration project in the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area.
The project will focus on restoring 20 acres of scrub habitat in the Lake Wales Ridge area, which is located throughout Highlands and Polk Counties, FWC wildlife biologist Nicole Ranalli said.
“The habitat on Lake Wales Ridge is one of the most unique habitats in the world,” she said. “It has some of the most endangered species and some of the highest number of endemic species in North America.”
The restoration project will help native species such as the gopher tortoise, Florida scrub-jay and Southeastern American kestrel survive more happily in the scrub habitat, Ranalli said. Restoration work will involve volunteers removing invasive exotic plants and reestablishing native plants such as scrub palmetto, scrub holly and saw palmetto.
The main invasive plant that will be targeted is the Rosa nitida, which Ranalli described as an extremely prevalent plant that fruits and flowers constantly throughout the year. She said volunteers will remove the invasive plants by spraying them with herbicides and hand-pulling those which are surrounded by endangered plant species.
“It’s gonna be one of those uphill battles for volunteers and staff to keep a handle on the exotic plants,” she said. “It’s going to be a constant effort to keep up but well worth it in the end.”
Before the FWC received its grant, a volunteer group called the Ridge Rangers started restoring the land, Ranalli said.
Ridge Rangers coordinator Bill Parken said his 40-person group has collected roughly 12,000 seeds and acorns over the last few months. Those seeds will be potted in a local greenhouse and planted in the scrub habitat.
Central Florida Conservation Director for the Nature Conservancy Tricia Martin said Disney’s conservation fund has a long, strong history of environmental assistance in the area.
“This area has had a close working relationship with Disney for a couple of decades,” she said. “They have an environmental legacy that spans more than 50 years of commitment to responsible development and one of their largest legacies is their work here in Central Florida.”
Martin is also part of the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Working Group, a volunteer group that ensures the long-term protection of the native plants, animals and natural communities of this unique region of Florida. Representatives from organizations such as the Florida State Parks, the Florida Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy make up the group.
“We protect nature and the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem for a multitude of reasons,” Martin said, “From protecting our own well-being to protecting the diversity of life on earth for its own sake and making sure we pass along a sustainable future to generations to come.”