Where: Central Florida
What: Pristine wilderness in the shadow of America’s theme park capital
Orlando is famous as the family-fun city that Disney built, but it has quietly developed a secret second identity as a jumping-off spot to some of the most pristine wilderness in Florida. Sadly, the bulk of the 50 million-plus visitors who converge on this tourist megalopolis every year, spending hours creeping along congested highways from hotels to theme parks, probably never realize that the other, wilder Florida lurks just an exit away. When I passed through recently with my daughters en route to a family reunion, we were able to explore this hidden Orlando, where tropical ecology is the prime attraction. It was a relaxing antidote to the hyperstimulating theme park experience: no crowds, no merchandise booths, no imitation castles, and the only mouse ears in sight belong to Podomys floridanus, the Florida mouse.
Orlando’s transformation into a mecca for family vacationers began in the early 1960s, when agents working for the Walt Disney Corporation bought up more than 40 square miles of cattle fields and swamps here. For Walt Disney World (now the Magic Kingdom®), which opened in 1971, the company built dozens of canals and levees and drained an entire lake. But Orlando’s fate changed again in 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, recognizing that wetlands filter the water that flows through them and provide important habitats for fish and birds. Under the law, when builders drain or pave over wetlands they must restore others nearby, a process known as mitigation.
One result is the Disney Wilderness Preserve, located some 30 miles south of Orlando. In the early 1990s Disney needed to offset new construction at its theme parks and at the planned community of Celebration. The company crafted what was, at the time, an innovative response, says Tricia Martin, the Nature Conservancy’s Central Florida conservation director: “Instead of doing piecemeal mitigation, which tended to produce tiny parcels within a development, they decided to do a larger project off-site.” In the end, Disney decided to buy an entire 8,500-acre tract called Walker Ranch and then donated it to the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. (For information on the preserve: call 407-935-0002, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see the webpage for the preserve.)
Other developers have since adopted this approach as well, for several reasons. First and foremost, wetlands are more complicated than they look. Marshes, swamps, and bogs are all unique ecosystems with their own water flow patterns, and it takes more to create a healthy, lasting wetland than digging a hole and adding water. Many companies are willing to hire experts to do it, and environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy are ready to help conserve sites that would otherwise become parking lots.
The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a case in point. It sits in the Everglades headwaters, a zone of streams, lakes, and ranch lands stretching between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee in central Florida. Water once flowed freely from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles south, creating the Everglades, the extraordinary 50-mile-wide swath of marshes that author and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas memorably called a “river of grass.” Drainage for ranching and development have shrunk the Everglades to half their original size, but state and federal agencies had adopted a 30-year plan that is projected to cost more than $10 billion. Conserving land in the headwaters area is critical because it helps protect the system at its source.
Driving along narrow side roads to the preserve, subdivisions quickly give way to scattered houses and cattle fields, without any billboards hawking the gator farms and swim-with-dolphin packages that pass as nature tourism in many parts of the state. At the refuge we follow a sandy walking trail that takes us back to a prehistoric Florida. Fields of leathery saw palmettos and stands of longleaf pine trees are pocked with ponds and marshes. Sandhill cranes swoop overhead, and a red-shouldered hawk screeches in the distance. There are more than 1,000 species of plants and animals at the refuge. Some are common, like wild turkeys, but many are endangered or threatened. The Conservancy is reintroducing endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers to the preserve and monitoring a rare wood stork rookery on the site.
To re-wild this tract, the Conservancy filled in drainage ditches, restoring natural water flows. It also attempted to weed out invasive species like feral hogs, a major Florida scourge introduced by Spanish explorers in the 1500s (the animals uproot delicate plants), and saltbush, a shrub that grows well in marshy areas but can spread aggressively. Now curators carry out managed burns across parts of the site each year to clear undergrowth and help native plants germinate. “Burns would happen even if we didn’t set them. This is the lightning capital of Florida, and these plants are wired for fire,” says program assistant Christa Evans. When we pass a burned-over section we see young longleaf pines sending bright green shoots up from their blackened stems, leafing out above the fire line.