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  • Tara Crutchfield

Polk Forever

“The Earth is what we all have in common.” – Wendell Berry


Have you ever wandered the boardwalk at Alligator Alley in Circle B Bar Reserve or admired the overhead canopy reflected on the still blackwater during a hike through the Peace River Hammock? If so, you have benefited from the Polk County Environmental Lands Program. On November 8, 1994, Polk County citizens voted in favor of levying a tax on themselves to fund a local environmental lands program.


“The purpose of the Environmental Lands Program is to acquire, preserve, protect, manage and restore endangered and environmentally sensitive lands, water resources and important wildlife habitat. Acquired properties may be used for passive outdoor recreational purposes provided that such uses will not disturb or degrade the environmental quality for which the site was acquired,” according to polknature.com.


Andy Glogower “Never Give Up” on display at ART/ifact in Lakeland

Properties protected by the Environmental Lands Program in Polk County include Circle B Bar Reserve, Gator Creek Reserve, Marshall Hampton Reserve, Sherwood L. Stokes Preserve, Crooked Lake Prairie, Hickory Lake Scrub, North Walk-in-Water Creek, SUMICA, Crooked Lake Sandhill, Lakeland Highlands Scrub, and Peace River Hammock.


These preserved wilderness areas have provided the community with rich recreational opportunities, protection of water resources and wildlife habitat, and been a boon for eco-tourism in the county.


Though the initial levy expired in 2015, the issue will be on the ballot again this November thanks to Polk Forever, a nonpartisan political committee of volunteers who share a passion for conservation. The committee’s initial goal was to get a referendum on the ballot this November. With that accomplished, their aim is the passage of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Referendum on November 8, 2022.


According to Polk Forever, the purpose of this referendum is “To continue the work begun by the 1994 voter-approved referendum that created the Polk County Environmental Lands Program. If approved, funding will be dedicated to purchase and conserve the environmentally sensitive lands needed to protect our county’s water resources and wildlife habitat. Lands can be purchased outright or protected by conservation easements. The goal is to expand, buffer, and connect existing preserves and wildlife corridors and provide citizens with high-quality resource-based outdoor recreation opportunities.”


If passed, four distinct areas have been identified for conservation efforts, including The Green Swamp, The Lake Wales Ridge, The Upper Kissimmee Basin, and The Peace River.


Funding will be provided through a dedicated 0.2 mill ad valorem property tax for 20 years if the referendum is approved. According to Polk Forever, “Monies will be dedicated to the acquisition and management of lands purchased outright or to the purchase of conservation easements that will keep the land in private ownership while protecting important natural resources.”


“Statewide partners and federal partners are always looking for communities that are willing to invest themselves. So, if we don’t have a funding program in Polk County, other state groups are probably going to look at other areas to match funds with. Matching funds with partners is key,” said Polk Forever board member Suzanne Lindsey. “Our county staff that was so successful with this before are still in place, and they really know how to use those monies to get the biggest bang for your buck. It’s a great investment.”


To raise awareness and support for the Environmental Lands Referendum, Polk Forever is hosting a juried triple art show across the county. The shows will feature paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography, and mixed media pieces from local and regional artists inspired by Polk’s environmental lands purchased through the 1995-2015 citizen referendum.


Sherri Myers Wray “The Ladies Man” on display at ART/ifact in Lakeland

The first exhibition was held at the Ridge Art Gallery in Winter Haven from September 3 – September 23, 2022.


ART/ifact in Lakeland will display a Polk Forever exhibition from October 1 – 28, 2022, with an opening reception on October 1 from 4 – 6 pm. The Lake Wales Art Gallery will feature another exhibition from October 1 – 28, 2022, with a reception on October 15 from 4 – 6 pm.


Polk County kids have submitted pieces inspired by the lands they love and hope to preserve, along with work by professional and emerging artists. “We want to see what people enjoy about the parks and get their view on it,” said Polk Forever board member and artist, Blair Updike. “It’s a good way to show appreciation for the success of the past program and showcase those different lands, the different environments – they’re all over the county.”


Lindsey agreed, adding, “I think people who visit the properties become the best ambassadors to protect it.”


Updike, a celebrated painter from Lake Wales, has submitted work for the Polk Forever exhibition series, and so has her daughter. Other local artists of note include photography from Adam Bass and sculptures by David Price.


“Conservation helps everyone,” Updike said. “You need the clean water. You need all the things provided by having open space. Everyone should care.”


Polk Forever

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IG @polkforever

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Information on the Polk County Environmental Lands Program: polknature.com


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