LAKE PLACID — Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Royce Unit is a few thousand feet from the western shore of Lake Istokpoga. The soil is black and mucky.
But move west a mile or two, uphill the Lake Wales Ridge, and the sand becomes white and sugary. That’s where the Ridge Rangers and 40 volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints planted oak seedlings on Saturday morning.
This is Project Acorn. Last year, a junior ROTC class and the Ridge Rangers — a group of citizen-science volunteers — gathered 15,000 acorns from conservation lands. Some were directly planted, another 7,000 were potted by attendees at festivals like Boktoberfest and CCC days.
Sprouts were maintained over the winter.
“We waited until July because we’re in the rainy season now,” said Bill Parken, FWC’s coordinator for the Ridge Rangers.
By 9 a.m. crews had already finished one of the three rows and turned into the second. One shoveled two or three inches of earth, another knelt and planted a Dixie-cup sized seedling. Behind them, a four-person crew hosed water from a 750-gallon truck.
Project Acorn started with a $25,000 grant from Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Parken and Nicole Ranalli enlisted the volunteers.
“People were involved at many levels,” Parken said, estimating 700 to 800 at various stages.
“This is scrub oak habitat, without the oaks,” Parken said. And that’s what the Ridge Rangers do, restore the natural scrub habitat of the Lake Wales Ridge.
This isn’t one of those projects where a teen like Adrianna Taylor — who was with her mother, Dara — can return with her own daughter one day and say, ‘See, we planted these trees.” There’s grove of orange trees to the west, and the oaks they’re planting can’t be seen from Royce Ranch Road, two miles east and four miles north of downtown Lake Placid.
The oak trees will benefit the gopher tortoise and the scrub jays, Parken said. Maybe the fire-resistant oaks will grow and the cat briar vine will die. It grabs the ankles and trip anyone who walks through. Maybe the oaks will get tall and shade the natal grass, which isn’t native to the Ridge, and it will die out instead of competing with the oaks for moisture and soil nutrients.
This is a community project for Steve Austin, bishop of the Sebring Mormon church and the newly formed Lake Placid branch. They look for ways to give back. One of their projects was the cleanup of the Sebring civic center. He and Adam Tyson hoped to plant 100 seedlings on Saturday.
If they’re successful, the Lake Wales Ridge may return one day to how it looked before civilization came: ancient dunes where U.S. 27 is now, and ocean floor where Lake Istokpoga, Lake June-in-Winter, Lake Placid and Sebring are today.