“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”
These words from iconic conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, speak to a truly magnificent and unique place, The Everglades of Florida. Most people when they envision the River of Grass, think of South Florida and a National Park. However, the Everglades ecosystem is so much more than the Southern tip of our state. The Everglades Headwaters begin in Orange and Lake County flowing through a network of lakes, rivers, prairies and cattle ranches to Lake Okeechobee. Historically, a drop of water could fall on Disney World and make its way to Florida bay. Just as Douglas stated, there is nothing anywhere else like the Everglades Headwaters, and it’s right in our backyard.
The Headwaters, commonly referred to as the Kissimmee River Basin, begins in the swamps behind Magic Kingdom, flowing south to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes as Reedy Creek. Lakes famous to central Florida such as Kissimmee, Tohopekaliga, and Hatchineha along with more than two dozen others make up the Kissimmee Chain before the flow heads south to Okeechobee via the Kissimmee River and its at times 3-mile-wide floodplain. Obviously, a critical component of any river system is its headwaters and, The River of Grass’ is no less important. Outside of historically being the source of water for the entire ecosystem, the area provides critical habitat to many species of Flora and Fauna. Panthers, Black Bears, and a host of other amazing creatures call the Kissimmee River Basin home and utilize its corridors. Waterfowl migrating from as far as the Arctic Circle winter on its lakes which provide countless other bird species with year-round abode. Endemic plant species can be found on the sandy ridges and the low-lying wetlands throughout the headwaters. Cypress knees, as tall as a man, grow along creek edges providing a setting akin to a sanctuary. The Kissimmee River Basin is a natural wonder no less amazing then places like the Amazon and Nile Rivers.
One of the greatest benefits to the public of the Everglades Headwaters is the access to nature provided through public lands and waters. Lake Kissimmee State Park and Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve are two state parks encompassing over 13,000 acres and 32 miles of trails. Camping, fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing can all be enjoyed at these parks sharing the “The Real Florida.” Wildlife management areas and water management lands provide sportsman and enthusiasts access to tens of thousands of acres spanning the entire Kissimmee River Basin. Osceola Turkeys, hogs, and Whitetail Deer abound in the public lands surrounding the waterways of the Basin. Along with land-based activities the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes offers recreational opportunities on its more than 80,000 acres of waters. The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes has long been a world-famous destination for fisherman targeting Largemouth Bass and Speckled Perch. Grape Hammock, Guy Harvey’s Camp Mack, and Port Hatchineha all provide access to anglers, waterfowlers, and boaters. The ability to interact and surround oneself with overwhelming and amazing nature is minutes away. Access to these wild and unique areas is significant. The wild lands of the Everglades Headwaters, should be enjoyed, respected, and protected.
The Everglades Headwaters, is a place unique in its splendors, and is unlike anywhere else in this world. Such a place that provides habitat for endangered species, access for public enjoyment, and is the historic life source for the entire Everglades community, should not face the threat of its very existence. However, that is exactly what is at stake today. Poorly planned and managed population growth threatens the very majesty of this wonder. Development occurs on its shores daily and contributes to habitat loss and degradation of its water quality. According to several studies on the Florida Greenways Network, the cities at the headwaters are the largest contributors of pollutants to the watershed. Not only does this sprawl contribute to pollution but in its very essence destroys the natural settings where it occurs and limits water management practices. At this very moment there are approvals in place for several thousand homes in Osceola County on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga and Alligator Lake. Growth is inevitable in the surrounding areas of the Headwaters. Smart growth, with the understanding that we don’t get wild lands back once a subdivision is in its place, should be followed. Conservation of the Everglades Headwaters must be the priority.
We are a blessed community to have a true environmental wonder in our backyard, The Everglades Headwaters. Whether hiking a day at a state park, pursuing waterfowl on its lakes, or simply enjoying an afternoon on the water for a cruise; the Everglades Headwaters offer many opportunities to experience wild Florida. That gift comes with the responsibility to ensure its conservation. We owe it to the next generation of Floridians that the Everglades and its headwaters flourish and don’t become “A Land Remembered,” but rather a land conserved.