Deer and coyote leave their tracks in the soft sand of what passes in Florida for hilly terrain.

Florida panthers have been known to do the same.

Thanks to a recent $38 million purchase of an interest in this mosaic of native Florida habitats and human-altered pastures, ditches and roads known as Hatchineha Ranch by The Nature Conservancy, panthers and other wide-ranging wildlife will continue to enjoy a nearly unbroken corridor between the Everglades and Central Florida and perhaps beyond.

The sale, announced just before Thanksgiving, stops plans to turn this 5,134-acre ranch at Polk County’s distant eastern boundary into a city-sized housing development.

That project, called Hatchineha Lakes, was headed for a public hearing in February before the County Commission.

That hearing won’t be necessary now, though county planners are still waiting for a letter formally asking that the project be withdrawn.

Keith Fountain, director of protection for the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the preservation of Hatchineha Ranch has been a high priority because of its location in the regional landscape.

“This is one of the last high biodiversity landscapes in Central Florida,” he said.

But to understand the importance of the deal, you have to zoom out far enough to see how this piece fits in the regional landscape.

a piece of the puzzle

The purchase not only completes a nearly continuous corridor of conservation lands around 6,665-acre Lake Hatchineha along the Polk-Osceola line, but it fills a gap in a wildlife corridor that reaches from the outskirts of Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee and into the Everglades.

Think of a regional wildlife corridor as something akin to an interstate highway for everything from Florida panthers and black bears to migrating warblers and waterfowl.

Think of any barrier, such a new network of roads and fences that accompany new development, as something like having the road closed between two interchanges with no easy way to re-enter.

The importance of the corridor was described in a 2002 report prepared for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The report said this area was an important link between the Avon Park Air Force Range and the Green Swamp, which was depicted as part of a more comprehensive statewide corridor system stretching all the way to the Florida Panhandle.

“Habitat within this linkage might also help support panther re-establishment in South-Central Florida in the future,” the report concluded.

years in the making

The Nature Conservancy’s success caps years of preservation efforts.

Once called Imagination Farms, the property topped the list of tracts Polk County sought to protect when the county’s environmentally sensitive lands referendum passed in 1994.

The Polk County’s Environmental Lands Program and the South Florida Water Management District unsuccessfully pursued its acquisition for years.

Fountain said the recently announced deal came as a result of a number of opportune circumstances.

For one thing, the state’s Florida Forever fund is temporarily tapped out because of the state budget crisis, so very little land is being purchased by state officials.

That means landowners interested in selling large tracts for conservation are turning to private groups such as the conservancy.

“There are more opportunities than we’ve ever seen before, but we’re only taking the cream of the crop,” he said.

There was another aspect that aided this deal, which is the cooperation of the owners, Hatchineha Ranch LLC of West Palm Beach.

“I can’t underestimate that this would not have been possible without the landowner’s cooperation,” he said.

Ernie Cox, one of the representatives for Hatchineha Ranch involved in the concept, agreed it was “a pretty creative deal.”

The deal worked this way: Hatchineha Ranch donated 1,130 acres to The Nature Conservancy, and the conservancy purchased a partial interest in the remaining 4,004 acres.

“I’m very excited to have been a part of it,” Cox sad.

rare habitat

He said the restoration of the site’s diverse habitat that includes scrub, flat woods, oak hammocks and extensive – 2,160 acres – wetlands.

Hatchineha Ranch contains an unusual habitat called cutthroat seeps that will be part of the master plan.

Cutthroat seeps are areas where groundwater seeps to the surface, characterized by the presence of cutthroat grass, a type of grass found only in a few scattered locations in Central and South Florida.

“This has the most immense area of cutthroat I’ve ever seen,” the conservancy’s Fountain said.

In fact, in some sections of the property, the cutthroat grass covers the ground everywhere you look.

At this point, there’s no timetable for the restoration, but work of this type typically takes years to plan and implement.

While the restoration is under way, the land will remain in private ownership.

Fountain said someday it is likely to be purchased by the government and become either an addition to the adjacent 8,250-acre Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park or to land managed by the South Florida Water Management District.