Raw Nature, Rawhide: Touring Florida’s Eco-Ranches
By Chelle Koster Walton
When beef prices began to fall with the rise of cholesterol awareness, Florida cattle ranching grew lean. Ranchers who worked age-old family farms had to look elsewhere to keep afloat their vast acreage and a deeply imbedded Florida pioneer tradition. A number of them turned to ecotourism.
Babcock Wilderness Adventures at the 90,000-acre Crescent B Ranch northeast of Fort Myers was the first Florida ranch to turn family cattle land into a tourist attraction with ecological and heritage appeal. In 1988, it began to sell tickets for a converted school-bus swamp buggy tour of old Florida nature and lifestyles.
The 90-minute excursion includes a ride through an old logging town, across pastureland where cattle and re-introduced bison range, a plunge into the swamp where alligators are farmed and plentiful, and a boardwalk hike into wetlands.
Tour guides describe the business of cattle and ‘gator ranching and produce a live baby alligator for a demonstration. At one stop, participants can view Florida panthers in a large natural habitat containment. Deer and wild turkeys are often spotted in the wild. Alternatively, eco-bike tours take visitors off-road for a three-hour, ten-mile romance with nature.
Building upon this model of success, four other ranch attractions have opened in as many years. The first, Florida Ranch Tours at the 20,000-acre Adams Ranch, west of Fort Pierce, bills itself as an agro-tourism, eco-tourism and cultural tourism attraction. The sheer number and variety of non-arranged (penned or planned) wildlife on the Adams Ranch is impressive. Herds of white-tailed deer bound within eyeshot. Sandhill cranes and ibises are visible and abundant.
Near Orlando-Kissimmee, Forever Florida adopted a bit of amusement park pizazz, adding a petting zoo, horse-drawn wagon and horseback tours, bike trails and rentals, and nature hikes. The Crescent J Ranch is more nature attraction than working ranch with a preserved wilderness habitat shared by wild Cracker cows, and horses, deer, otters, alligators, sandhill cranes and bald eagles. Coach tour highlights include a rollicking ride through Turkey Slough and a cool boardwalk hike into cypress swamp.
In danger of losing lease land to nearby golf course development, Broken Gate Ranch, northeast of Naples, began sharing its acreage with visitors last year. “The cattle industry is about a thing of the past,” says owner Kerry Van Meter. Today, visitors can opt for a duding or nature experience–by horseback or small five-person swamp buggy through 640 acres of wild boar, deer, wild turkey, and bobcat habitat.
Wildlife is abundant on many of Florida’s eco-ranches for a reason. Ranching itself exerts some negative impact on the land, points out Forever Florida’s environmental educator and tour guide, Steve Wagner. Ranching means more insects, which means small birds and their predators–hawks and baldeagles. Imported nutrition-rich grasses attract deer and wild turkeys. Watering holes entice alligators and wading birds. All of which make ranches a great place to see wildlife. “There’s an increased diversity,” Wagner sums up the impact. “But it’s not natural.”
Longtime Tampa area rancher J.B. Starkey devotes a large chunk of his family land to a wilderness recreation park. The rest makes up J.B. Starkey’s Flatwoods Adventures, a heritage/eco-attraction that tours visitors around saw palmetto flatlands and ‘gator caves as they learn how Cracker cowboys once herded Spanish-descended cattle through these lands. Like other ranch tours, participants often see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises, and are guaranteed the sight of penned alligators.
For all the attractions and swamp tours, wildlife and eco-paths, the most important thing for these eco-ranches is preservation of the environment. “This project won’t work if we don’t keep stewardship with the land,” explains Rhonda Robinson, J.B. Starkey’s publicist and tour guide.
That’s really the main idea behind Florida’s new wave of eco-ranches. “Ranchers have been conservationists before the term was coined,” says Florida Ranch Tours’ Mark Harrison. Time’s come to hitch the public up to that rich heritage.
FLORIDA’S ECO RANCHES
South of Kissimmee
J.B. Starkey’s Flatwoods Adventures
Babcock Wilderness Adventures
north of Fort Myers
toll-free 800-500-5583, (941) 637-0551
Florida Ranch Tours
east of Fort Pierce
Broken Gate Ranch
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