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About Us

History

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 (BoCC) 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 now has a funded environmental land acquisition and management program. The levy expired in 2015.

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. 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 #94-40 and #94-73 provides the legal framework from which the Environmental Lands Program must operate. Also, the Polk County Comprehensive Plan has two policies, 2.309-B4 and 2.309-B5 that require the county to set up an Environmental Lands Acquisition Program and to acquire a minimum amount of acreage each year. Ordinance 08-003 as amended provides the framework for guiding the visiting public to Polk County's environmental lands.

Partners

Polk County, through its Environmental Lands Program, works closely with non-profits, 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 plant 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

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. 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.

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 representatives from the business and agricultural community, environmental groups, phosphate industry and professionals with land use experience. They are charged to aid the county in the design and orderly implementation of the local land acquisition program in Polk County.

The Technical Assessment Group (TAG) was formed to assist with the Environmental Lands Program's site inspections using the criteria as outlined in Ordinance #94-40. The TAG consists of technical and professional individuals in environmental (wildlife, botany, ecology, and water resources), land management and recreation planning fields. The Environmental Lands Program accepts site nominations from willing sellers; then pertinent information is gathered for each nomination. The Environmental Lands criteria is used by the TAG and CLASAC to score and rank the sites. Recommendations for or against acquisition of sites with willing sellers are forwarded to the Board for their consideration and approval. The emphasis has been to have an acquisition and management partner to share costs wherever possible.

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 with the site. A public meeting is held to explain the site's important natural resources and to receive comment from the public on the management and nature-based recreation, in order to develop the 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.

Monitoring Effects

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.

Prescribed Fire

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.