This part of Florida was pioneered by ‘cow hunters’ who rounded up wild cattle in the Kissimmee Valley. Descended from Spanish herds of the 1600s, the long-horned scrub cattle were flushed from the scrub and driven across the state to Punta Rassa, on the Gulf Coast. There they were sold for gold coins, and shipped to the markets in Cuba.
The tradition changed only a little when the area was converted to large, fenced ranges and railroads offered ranchers a domestic market around 1900. Lake Kissimmee State Park, just east of Lake Wales, features an 1880s ‘cow camp’ complete with a ranger ‘cow hunter’ who will happily share his rustic lifestyle with visitors.
Ranching remains a significant, if threatened, occupation today.
Those citizens fortunate enough to have been around Florida for several decades are very aware of the tremendous population explosion and resultant development that has changed the state.
From about three million residents in the early 1960s, Florida boomed to about 19 million today. Both coasts were dramatically changed as small strands of scenic beach towns ballooned into burgeoning cities of towering oceanfront condominiums.
The interior of central Florida changed, too, as Disney and other attractions drew millions to our region. Desolate locations were converted into sprawling ‘planned communities.’ Some feature miles of streets, paved primarily for the dreams of developers rather than the sparse traffic they bear.
Florida will never be the same.
Opportunities to preserve and protect the traditional Florida lifestyle of ranching and farming are few.
Most ranch owners would prefer to see their properties passed intact to new generations, without being forced to slice them into small parcels and sell them off.
Now, however, some Florida ranchers have an opportunity to maintain their spreads as they exist today, and recover some of the investment they have in the land, thanks to the proposed North Everglades Watershed National Wildlife Refuge.
At a hearing conducted recently at South Florida Community College in Avon Park, several representatives of ranching interests spoke in favor of the proposed refuge. The proposal would give interested and willing sellers the right to sell their land’s development rights, and assure that they can keep the range in productive use for generations to come.
Preserving a traditional lifestyle and occupation is only a fringe benefit of the greater goal: protecting Florida’s wildlife,
Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and the water supply for millions. The Refuge would protect the habitat of many rare or endangered species, including caracara, bald eagle, black bear and panther.
The lands would be managed for recreational uses, including hiking, birding, hunting, and fishing.
The North Everglades Watershed National Wildlife Refuge would serve as the companion to the existing Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, which was created to protect several extremely rare plant species from development.
Together the two refuges would also likely justify a new field office and staff, which could offer increased access to the protected lands.
We look forward to the establishment of this new Refuge, and the many benefits it will provide for our citizens, and the future of Florida.