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A key portion of the Florida Wildlife Corridor will remain undeveloped

Deer in woods
Gabriela Tejeda
Courtesy: Conservation Florida
Deer gather at the Lightsey Family Ranch.

The more than 1,200 acres along Fisheating Creek in Highlands County is surrounded on all sides by previously preserved lands.

What has been called one of the most vital "missing links" in the Florida Wildlife Corridor is going to be preserved forever.

The state has agreed to protect an area along Fisheating Creek in Highlands County. It's called the Lightsey Family Ranch, 1,285 acres that is surrounded on all sides by previously preserved lands.

Among its neighbors are Archbold Biological Station, a renowned research center, and Fisheating Creek, the only free-flowing river into Lake Okeechobee.

The conservation easement means the ranch will continue to operate, but the land will not be developed in perpetuity. It's part of a recent state initiative to preserve 21,000 acres at a cost of just under $50 million.

It was one of the last remaining links in the areas just north of the Everglades.

The project falls under the Blue Head Ranch Florida Forever boundary.

“The protection of Lightsey Family Ranch further connects the Florida Wildlife Corridor, linking critical green landscapes and wildlife habitats,” said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton. “We’re grateful for our partners, like Conservation Florida, and their shared commitment to protecting wild Florida for future generations.”

The property, composed of 435 acres of wetlands and 850 acres of uplands, is home to the threatened Sandhill crane and cutthroat grass as well as alligators, gopher tortoises, and wild turkeys. Landowner Lightsey has also spotted Florida Grasshopper sparrows, burrowing owls, Crested caracaras and celestial lilies.

“This new easement pieces together a series of critical lands in the Everglades Headwaters,” said Archbold Director of Conservation Joshua Daskin. “The region is broadly important as the source area for water flow into Lake Okeechobee and much of the Everglades.”

“We are incredibly grateful to bring another crucial piece of Florida into permanent protection status thanks to the Lightsey Family, our partners at FDEP, and our supporters,” saidConservation Florida CEO and President Traci Deen. “This land will always stay green and furthers our work to connect a functional Florida Wildlife Corridor — and we are proud of that.”

Map of Lightsey Family Ranch

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.