SEBRING—When Highlands Hammock State Park acquired the 700-acre Seven Lakes Property, off C.R. 635, it was used for grazing cattle.
The open grounds, dotted with seven ponds or lakes and a mix of pines, oaks, palmettos and grasses, was overgrown but had the potential to be pristine land, said the park’s assistant manager Charlie Brown.
Today, park officials are restoring the area to what “Original Florida” once was and preserving it for future generations to enjoy even as development inevitably marches on.
“We are trying, as best as we can, with what information we have, to make it look like the way it was before the European man got here,” Brown said.
Park manager Brian Pinson said spread over the Seven Lakes Property, which is surrounded by homes, is an oasis of seven fragile ecosystems and some rare species, making it an unique piece of ecological land.
A long time ago, when the ocean levels were higher, most of peninsular Florida was under water except for a narrow, sandy ridge-- called the Lake Wales Ridge.
The plants and animals that thrived on the Ridge’s hardy landscape are found no where else in the world.
Cities and towns, such as Sebring, Lake Placid and Avon Park, are now straddling Old Florida’s Ridge, edging out the plants and animals that once called it home, except in preserved pockets such as Seven Lakes.
“We are trying to save the diversity of plants and animals,” Brown said.
Tiny yellow wildflowers called xyris and the blossoms of the marsh-pink danced in the breeze, hundreds of them ringing one of the Seven Lakes’ big ponds.
A solitary snake bird was drying itself.
Bands of plant types have made their home around the pond, depending on which part of the lake-front soil best suits their needs. From the air, the depression pond, ringed with layers of vegetation, looks like a bull’s eye, said park ranger Mike Sawyer.
Those who are in the ecology business will tell you how important fire is in Florida’s forests.
Native plants and animals depend on fire to burn off excess vegetation and preserve the delicate ecological balance that keeps them all alive and in sync.
These days, natural resource officials use ecological burns, or prescribed burns, to replicate forest wildfires, which keeps nature’s harmony humming, and Seven Lakes is no exception.
“It’s a web,” Sawyer said of the delicate ecological interdependence. “It’s very complex.”
Over the last couple of years, park officials have stepped up prescribed burns to accomplish their goals for Seven Lakes. One of those is to control the number of sand pines, native to scrub habitat but highly invasive -- meaning they can take over an ecosystem and crowd everything else out -- and reduce the height of sand live oak trees.
A few charred remains of sand pines lay on the ground after a 105-acre burn about the middle of May, but nature doesn’t take that long to recycle.
Popping out of the bare ground were clumps of saw palmettos and even tiny yellow star grass, in bloom, helped by the nutrients the ecological burn released. .
Brown said in about a year, what looks bare now will proliferate with vegetation, and its growth will help animals and birds that forage on them.
As if on cue, a family of Florida Scrub-Jays started singing in the pine trees. These gray-and-blue birds live in the rare oak scrub and are considered threatened and hard to find except in preserved habitats such as Seven Lakes.
Seven Lakes is open to the public and its hours are the same as Highlands Hammock. Entry fee is $2 a vehicle, and while the park is not manned by rangers, the entry fee can be dropped off in blue envelopes that are available at the entrance.
Brown and Sawyer want the community to enjoy the property, and while motorized vehicles have to be parked in the parking lot, there are several walking trails along with catch-and-release fishing.
There are also two picnic pavilions, which can be reserved for a family outing, by calling Highlands Hammock. Rest rooms are also available
Sawyer said he knows people who come there every day, just to soak in the serenity. Plus, the place teems with wildlife and the charm of what was once Florida before the theme parks and the tourists.
“We have the wide open spaces and people are able to see the wildlife without interruption from cars,” he said.