UPPER KISSIMMEE BASIN
The Upper Kissimmee River Basin illustrates the benefits of successful conservation land acquisition programs.
Within the portion of the basin lying in Polk County, there are two state parks, a state forest, portions of a national wildlife refuge, three extensive private conservation preserves and much more land owned and managed by the South Florida Water Management District and the Polk County Environmental Lands Program.
The first parcel purchased by the Polk County Environmental Lands Program after voters approved the property tax to buy natural areas in 1994 was the 1,019-acre Horse Creek Scrub east of Davenport in 1996.
In 1999 the program purchased the 4,000-acre SUMICA site east of Lake Wales. It is the largest of Polk’s environmental preserves open to the public.
Most the public and private conservation land in Polk County is open for public recreation, an increasingly important value in a fast-growing county in a fast-growing state.
The current effort to reimpose a modest property tax to fund local land-acquisition efforts could fill some of the remaining missing pieces to offer even more recreational opportunities and natural resource protection.
That is key because Polk’s natural resources, its water bodies and its diverse wildlife play important roles across this landscape.
Water collects and flows for nearly 100 miles through the area via a system of creeks that feed each other before reaching lakes whose waters form the Kissimmee River as if flows toward Lake Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee is the largest water body in Florida and one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States at the headwaters of the Everglades, the legendary River of Grass described in Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ classic 1947 opus.
The variety of flora and fauna is no less impressive.
Bald eagles, crested caracara, snail kites, burrowing owls, sandhill cranes and Florida scrub-jays are among the dozens of bird species found here.
Reptile and amphibian diversity is on display, whether it is the splash of a startled alligator, the defensive coil of an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake or the gentle swirls in the sand that indicates the presence of sand skinks.
Rare insects such as Osceola grasshopper and Highlands tiger beetle survive in the uplands.
The flowering plants include rarities such celestial lily, yellow anise, scrub mints, Carter’s warea and showy flowering plants such as swamp azalea, pine lily and Osceola’s plume as well as a variety of ferns and bromeliads.