Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, 19-20 February 2011
This wildways trek has already afforded me so many wonderful wild sights, I know not which to write about; but Kissimmee Prairie I surely must try to describe. In a phrase, Kissimmee Prairie is the Southeast’s greatest grassland, and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is Florida’s flagship grassland state park. Imagine western Nebraska with small palms rather than large cows, and you might get a good image of Kissimmee.
I reached Kissimmee after another long hot ride, again longer than digital maps had suggested, but a scenic one with a detour to Hardwood Hammock State Park. Lacking road maps detailed enough to show central Florida’s bewildering and fragmenting array of rural roads, and determined to stay off the main highways with their deadly traffic, I took most of the morning just getting from Archbold Biological Station to Hardwood Hammock Park. I was riding through a comparatively hilly part of Florida, northward along Lake Wales Ridge, punctuated with beautiful but overdeveloped lakes and given largely to citrus and cattle production. I stopped to photograph condemned scrub habitat along Henscratch Road, gridded empty roads foretelling of another sprawling development to displace the natural neighborhood.
Hardwood Hammock State Park was a beautiful but necessarily brief stop; and if I saw the 500 acres of old-growth hardwood hammock that my mother (Mary Byrd Davis, author of Old-Growth Forest in the East: A Survey, and recent victim of cancer) documented, it was only from a distance. The small seemingly forgotten Nature trail I walked passed through sparse pine/oak/palm scrub. Walking there in hot mid-day sun, I felt almost like I was back in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
Then I hustled east, needing to cover another 50 miles to my meeting with Reed & Myra Noss and Paul Miller at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. This quick wheeled crossing of Lake Wales Ridge, on Routes 66 and 98 northwest of immense Lake Okeechobee – fount of the Everglades – suggested a still partly intact landscape, with the busy north-south highway 27 the major fragmenting feature. Much of the land on either side of 66 and 98 is ranches with semi-natural grasslands feeding cattle. By mid-afternoon, I was hot and weary enough, I was missing much of what the land would tell; but even so, the descent from Lake Wales Ridge was perceptible (a moment of coasting!), and the justly famous Kissimmee River was a lovely lush ribbon of dark green.
Massive reports and many millions of dollars have been spent on describing central Florida’s Kissimmee River – major tributary of Lake Okeechobee and thence of the Everglades. I cannot add to the knowledge but will opine that the Army Corps should indeed undo the terrible damage it did to the Greater Everglades Ecosystem when it channelized the Kissimmee. Restoration efforts under way are overdue. These restoration efforts should honor ecology as well as hydrology, for the Kissimmee’s floodplain forests are important wildlife corridors. As well, the establishment of the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge is a top priority for the Kissimmee area (and letters of support to the US Fish & Wildlife Service are needed this month; see actions list elsewhere on Wildlands website, and contact Florida Sierra Club).
East of the Kissimmee River, I left Rt. 98 and cycled north on smaller roads. Soon I felt the poignancy of watching a gopher tortoise graze grasses next to another platted but unbuilt subdivision, and also was privileged to see a pair of crested caracaras, most of which species live south of the United States. I reached the great grassland of Kissimmee Park mid-afternoon and found my long-time friends Reed & Myra Noss and new friend Paul Miller out birding on a trail near the ranger station.
A few words about these important friends: Reed Noss is one of the sharpest people you’ll ever meet. He has more black belts in karate and publications in conservation biology than any land-scalper would dare confront. “Back in old Wild Earth days” (as some of us wildlands veterans are wont to say), Reed was the Science Editor past upon whom nary an error crept, and also wrote some of our most important articles, on ecological reserve design, endangered ecosystems, rewilding through restoration of top predators (a landmark paper co-authored with Dave Foreman, Michael Soulé, John Terborgh, and Brian Miller, if I recall aright), and the like. In the early 1980s, Reed co-authored with his PhD advisor Larry Harris (author of the conservation biology classic, Fragmented Forest) a reserve design for Florida that has shaped the state’s acquisition and conservation priorities ever since.
Reed’s wife Myra is an impressive naturalist in her own right, having learned much of Florida’s flora and fauna while working in the field with Reed. During our walks over the next couple days, when Reed and Paul were discussing some obscure matter of botanical taxonomy, I’d turn to Myra and she’d always know the common name of the species in question. Thankfully, it sounds like Reed & Myra’s older son, Clay, is following their lead and devoting his life to the study of and advocacy for the natural world.
Kissimmee Park biologist Paul Miller is likewise impressive in the depth and breadth of his biological knowledge. Not only could Paul identify every plant in what appeared to me a community of look-alikes, he understood the larger context – why central Florida’s remnant grasslands are globally important, how panthers might move through this area to recolonize former habitats northward, what Kissimmee River restoration can mean for the larger Everglades ecosystem, and how human-caused climate disruptions may affect all this.
Always quicker than I, Reed has already blogged on our outing and summarized Kissimmee Prairie ecology much better than I ever could. Paul has added some thoughtful words, too. See www.islandpress.org. As I did after similarly tagging along with ecological superiors at Archbold Biological Station, let me just add a few salient points, noting what great fun it was to follow Reed, Myra, and Paul into the great wide open! The outing was a reunion, too, for my wife and stepson, Denise and Justin, with me. Denise and Justin had planned to join me for a week on the trail in Florida during Justin’s school break; but as I mentioned in an earlier blog and will talk about more later, my mother’s sorrowful passing meant most of their vacation would instead be with other family for my mother’s service in Kentucky. Still, we had a great time afield with our scientist friends; and I’m hopeful the experience may inspire Justin (14) to study biology. So, a few points to remember:
Fire is a powerful tool, obviously; but not so obvious is how to wield it beneficially. Ideally, we protect and restore large enough wild areas that we can let Nature run its course – let weather determine when and where wildfires occur. Sadly, we’ve fallen a long way from that desired state, and for the near future prescribed fires will be needed; and they should include summer burns. Winter burns are easier to control, but they tend to favor woody species over grasses. Natural grasslands, as much of central Florida had, prefer frequent summer fires. Paul is putting parts of Kissimmee Prairie back into a two-to-three-year burn cycle to maintain open grasslands. Florida grasshopper sparrows and some other prairie species need the open grassy vegetation, with little runways for escaping predators fire creates.
Fire ants are an even bigger problem than has been recognized. Walking Kissimmee Prairie in our sandals, we had to dodge many anthills. For us, the exotic ant was a stinging worry; for ground-nesting birds like the grasshopper sparrow, fire ants may be fatal. (I would soon hear similar scientific speculation from naturalist Bruce Morgan that snake populations in Florida are way down partly because of fire ants decimating their prey.) Yet again, then, bioinvasion appears to be a major cause of biological impoverishment.
Feral hogs, too, are part of this bioinvasion of Florida. With their rapid reproductive rates and heavy rooting and grubbing for food, exotic pigs ravage sensitive plant communities. When a pig fled our approach, Paul told of the park’s efforts to have them captured and removed (dangerous work, costing the trapper parts of fingers and a few dogs); and Reed noted how slowly biotic communities are adapting to this invader. Naturalization may eventually come for most new arrivals, but European boars have been running loose in the Southeast since Spanish invaders brought them here centuries ago (and have since intermixed with escaped pigs), yet still our native plants suffer. Healthy panther and wolf populations might help reduce this problem.
Kissimmee Prairie is among the most significant blocks of wildland in the East. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Dave Foreman of The Rewilding Institute found in his roadless area inventory, The Big Outside, a couple million acres of roadless land and water in the Everglades and Big Cypress National Park System units and Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, giving the Everglades Ecosystem the most roadless acreage in the Southeast. If Dave ever has time to update his survey of the building blocks for ecological recovery, Kissimmee Prairie will surely deserve honorary mention, even if the few old ranch roads – some still used by park personnel for management – disqualify the unit from meeting the book’s 50,000 acre roadless threshold. At least one of the old ranch roads, by the way, may be doing ecological harm to adjacent grassland. The park’s infrastructure unfortunately is three miles into the park, rather than at the edge where it belongs. Thus big recreational vehicles and pick-ups and road-graders are regularly driving several miles into the park, running over snakes and disturbing other wildlife, and spreading alkaline dust onto nearby ground, thus perhaps changing soil pH to the disadvantage of rare native plants.
Let me end on a happy note, though: Denise and Justin (who hale from California’s redwoods region) and I (native to the woody Northeast) were astonished by the puzzling mixtures of plants – old-growth oak forest knee high, surrounded by waste-high palmettos; grasses of all heights hiding little pockets of sundews and bladderworts (which up north we see in boreal bogs); islands of gum and ash trees amidst vast expanses of grass (one of which islands, Gum Slough, had the last known breeding pair of Carolina parakeets). The greatest thrill for young Justin, whose generation must reconnect all these surviving pieces of wild America, was the pair of burrowing owls Paul took us to see. The winsome little raptors perched patiently by their burrows, and looked at Justin as if to inquire: will your kind give us the space we need?
WHAT YOU CAN DO: 1) Rally for full funding of the Florida Forever program. 2) Pressure federal officials to carry through on commitments for Kissimmee River restoration. 3) Send letters to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in support of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.
QUICK THANKS AND APOLOGIES: Those of us involved with TrekEast have been delighted with the expressions of support and invitations for visits that we have received. We heartily thank all of you who have contacted us, and urge you to get your friends and families to similarly go to wildlandsnetwork.org and join in. At the same time, though, please accept our apologies if we are not responding to your emails and messages as fast as you’d prefer. I am most of the time in the field with only limited phone and email service; and the Wildlands Network staff is already having to work double-time to keep up with TrekEast communications. Thank you for your patience as we hit stride on this expanding field communications component of our work; and please help us spread the word and strengthen the networks of conservationists needed to secure an Eastern Wildway.
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
TrekEast Book Club
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