Highlands Hammock State Park, in partnership with the Ridge Rangers, Lake Placid High ROTC and Walker Memorial Academy in Avon Park, held three volunteer workdays on April 19, 26 and 27 to mark the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day.
Assistant Park Manager Brian Pinson planned and initiated the first annual Habitat Restoration event that will carry on every April 22. He worked closely with Ridge Rangers coordinator Bill Parken and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in scheduling two public volunteer workdays to maximize results.
Florida scrub jay habitat restoration was the focus of this year’s effort. It is one of several priority goals the park is undertaking in accordance with park management plans and recommendations stemming from an intensive five-year Land Management Review completed in February. Ridge Ranger activities are largely directed towards aiding the preservation of scrub jays and other rare and endangered plant and wildlife species endemic to the Lake Wales Ridge and Florida scrub.
Highlands Hammock’s North Branch area is predominantly sand pine scrub with an overstory of sand pines and an understory of dwarfed shrubby oaks, saw palmetto, prickly pear cactus and other scrub vegetation. It is comprised of three management zones totaling 125 acres.
The objective is to reduce the density of sand pines and transform the acreage to an oak scrub which would draw families of scrub jays to establish new territory and maintain breeding populations. As scrub jays are communal, some jays assist the breeding pair with the care of nestlings and act as sentinels alerting the family group to the presence of predators such as hawks, owls and snakes.
Optimal habitat must have low, uniform oak thickets for nesting in proximity to bare, open sandy patches for acorn caching. The height of the oaks is low – three to five feet from the ground, not exceeding seven to 10 feet. Ideally, there should be one or two taller pines between 15 to 20 feet in height per acre. These zones are also targeted for prescribed burns which further enhance and improve the habitat for the jays and other wildlife species.
Prior to Earth Day, Walker Memorial Academy contacted the park requesting a volunteer project for students in need of completing community service hours required for college admission. Seven students and three instructors worked closely with Pinson and jump-started the restoration by working three hours April 19. They took down 400 sand pines with hand saws and loppers.
The following Friday, Pinson and a group of 13 Ridge Ranger volunteers picked up where Walker Academy left off. Pinson had also scheduled a major resource management exotic removal “spray day” for all available park staff which included Park Manager Steven Dale, four park rangers, the maintenance mechanic, two park service specialists and two exotic crew.
The staff, armed with herbicide backpacks and loppers, split into two groups to treat areas in the park where two highly invasive, non-native plants from Southeast Asia had begun to spread. Both Cogon grass and Old World Climbing Fern can invade natural areas including habitats where threatened and endangered native plant species occur. Left unchecked, they blanket areas and pose serious management problems related to fire. Park staff worked through the morning into the early afternoon dispersing 42 gallons of herbicide.
The final push occurred April 27 when 14 Lake Placid High ROTC members associated with the Ridge Rangers teamed up with 13 rangers and seven park staff. They cut down 537 sand pines. Working under the tutelage of the Ridge Rangers, the unit is becoming adept and gaining valuable experience.
The Ridge Rangers, one of Florida’s premier stewardship organizations whose members thrive on being outdoors, are masters with chainsaws and brush cutters. Their cumulative experiences from many Saturday mornings contribute to their success in working effectively as a team in the heat and inhospitable prickliness of scrub.
This Earth Day initiative was also a family affair as the park manager’s daughter assisted on Friday and the assistant manager’s son worked along side his father on Saturday.
Collectively over the two days, Ridge Ranger volunteers and park staff removed a total of 7,487 sand pines. The combined total from all three workdays totaled 8,424 trees.
At the end of both four-hour workdays, volunteers returned to Highland’s Recreation Hall for lunch and refreshments provided by the Friends of Highlands Hammock – the park’s citizen support organization. Pinson made a presentation about parks and exotic invasive species to the Ridge Rangers, while ROTC students went on a park tram tour with longtime Sebring resident and park staff member Mike Sawyer.
Highlands Hammock State Park would like you to join the celebration and become better acquainted with your local public lands. Volunteer groups such as the Ridge Rangers provide invaluable assistance to government agencies and other organizations entrusted with resource management.
Also, park volunteers are currently needed to open and close Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park, maintain and repair park rental bicycles, act as CCC Museum docents and monitor water quality at seven lakes.
If interested in volunteering or for more information, call 471-5324.