CLEWISTON — The Florida Trail Association (FTA) local chapter for Glades and Hendry Counties hosted an appreciation reception on June 1, 2023 for county and city elected officials in both counties, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE), Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The gathering was held at the Clewiston Museum.
“We gratefully acknowledge the efforts of the many agencies in Hendry and Glades Counties who continue to preserve free public trails and lands,” said Margaret England, FTA local chapter chair. “With each passing year, governmental budgets all over the U.S. are squeezed and new development marches onward. We’re very thankful to those who continue to protect free public trails and recreational areas.”
The Florida Trail Association is a statewide, non-profit founded in 1964. Its primary four-part mission is to build, maintain, protect and promote the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST or “the Florida Trail”). Each chapter may also help to develop and maintain trails on state and local public lands in its service area. The 1,584-mile FNST lies between the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It achieved congressional designation as a national scenic trail in 1983 after nearly two decades of effort by 1,000’s of FTA volunteers that continues today. England also acknowledged a local FTA member who will receive her 50-year membership plaque next year, Ms. Betty Loomis.
“The FTA partnership with the U.S. Forest Service resulted in volunteers contributing 17,000 hours statewide last season toward maintaining the Florida Trail,” said local FTA chapter Trail Coordinator, Kate Adams. “We’re looking forward to an increase in activities on the Glades and Hendry County portions of the FNST around Lake Okeechobee now that the Herbert Hoover dike re-construction will soon be truly completed.”
From its southern terminus, the Florida Trail passes through Hendry County within the SFWMD Stormwater Treatment Area 5/6 south of Clewiston. Upon reaching the John Stretch County Park in Palm Beach County, the trail continues around the entire 110-mile perimeter of Lake Okeechobee atop the Herbert Hoover Dike. At the Glades County/Okeechobee County line the FNST continues northward along the Kissimmee River.
Speakers at the thank-you gathering gave updates about their respective parks and trails. The City of LaBelle and Hendry County manage their recreational properties by joint agreement.
“The 9-acre LaBelle Nature Park, adjacent to both the Caloosahatchee River and the Historic Hendry House is one of our most popular recreational areas,” said LaBelle City Commissioner, Hugo Vargas. “It’s a great place to walk among lush plants and trees to take a peaceful break from the hectic nature of daily life.”
Vargas expressed his enthusiasm for the work of the FTA and stated that he was looking forward to exploring the Florida Trail and the three trails in the Fisheating Creek WMA. LaBelle Commissioner Bobbie Spratt recognized FTA Chapter Chair, Margaret England.
“Hats-off to Margaret England, who has really been the leader of efforts for the LaBelle Nature Park,” said Commissioner Spratt. “We appreciate her long years of service with various projects in Hendry County.”
Moore Haven City Manager, Larry Tibbs, reported on the city’s continuing efforts to expand its marina on the Caloosahatchee River. Adams added that the Riverwalk is a popular area for walking downtown, and that coastal mariners frequently stop in Moore Haven for its serene environment and local restaurants within walking distance of the river.
Clewiston City Manger, Randy Martin, reported on the progress of the new multi-use bridge adjacent to the trail, expected to be completed by December 2023. The City of Clewiston was re-dedicated as an FTA Gateway Community in March 2023. An informational kiosk inside the Clewiston Museum describes the Florida Trail and recreational opportunities in Clewiston.
“We just completed our new Master Plan that includes greater support and amenities for recreation and accessibility,” said Martin. “This will have a significant impact on the waterfront area and access to the Florida Trail. We appreciate all the support from the agencies represented here today.”
Martin further described the city’s plans to improve signage and highway access to the lake and to the FNST. He stated that he had participated in a recent FTA hike at Fort Center in the Fisheating Creek WMA, and after the hike visited the Sam Griffin Overlook tower in Glades County.
“Clewiston is also considering the possibility of a viewing tower on the city waterfront in the future,” said Martin. “We’ll be working with the appropriate agencies to improve infrastructure to support bird-watching, bicycling and hiking along the Florida Trail. We see eco-tourism as an important opportunity for our area.”
Commissioners Tim Stanley and Hattie Taylor represented Glades County at the event. Stanley described the entirety of Glades County as being like a park due to its extensive rural and agricultural landscapes.
“In addition to the Florida Trail around the lake, we have the paved trail at Vance Whidden Park that’s excellent for bicycling. It’s connected to a dedicated bike lane on Highway 78 that’s part of the Florida Trail,” said Stanley. “The Sam Griffin Overlook Tower at Margaret Van de Velde Park is very popular with wildlife and bird watchers.”
Stanley further described the two short trails through Oak Hammocks and native scrub habitat at the Larry Lucky Sr. Indian Mound Park in Ortona, where there is also an interpretive display commemorating the ancient archaeological history of the area. He said that the Alvin Ward Sr. County Park is directly adjacent to the Florida Trail at the eastern side of the Julian Keene Lock in Moore Haven. Ms. Adams added that this is a popular access site for cyclists who sometimes ride on the paved trail all the way to Clewiston and beyond.
Stanley said all of the Glades County parks except for Vance Whidden have picnic tables in covered pavilions. A new pedestrian bridge was installed last year over the Harney Pond Canal to connect the Florida Trail to the Van de Velde Park, where another paved walking trail leads to the viewing tower.
Ms. Adams added that nearly 55 miles of the Florida Trail passes through Glades and Hendry Counties on the west side of the lake, most of it paved. Only the section from Lakeport to Van de Velde County Park remains within a construction zone that’s expected to re-open no later than August 2023.
As part of the FNST, the entire perimeter of the Trail around Lake Okeechobee is primarily managed by the civil recreation division of the USACE from its Clewiston office. The USACE also manages the recreational areas at the Ortona Lock and the campgrounds at WP Franklin Recreational Area and Lock in Alva, among others.
“It’s our goal is to have the entire 110-mile trail around Lake Okeechobee paved within the next 2-3 years,” said USACE Lead Ranger, Kavin Carter. “In Glades County, the Trail in the Buckhead Ridge area, for example, is still gravel.”
Carter commended the enthusiasm of FTA volunteers toward helping the corp restore the trail infrastructure around the Lake now that the dike project is nearing completion. FTA volunteers will work with the USACE to install directional and trail signs that were lost as a necessary result of the dike re-construction over the past decade.
The USACE and FTA also plan to update the directional signs to the FNST on public roads as well as mile markers on the trail itself. Shade shelters and campsite structures are expected to be replaced over the next few years through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees all eleven of the National Scenic Trails across the country.
“Tent camping is allowed anywhere along the trail within the 110-mile loop around the lake as long as campers don’t block the trail or encroach on water structures like dams, locks and culverts,” said Carter. “There are also designated campsites around the lake with covered picnic tables.”
The SFWMD provides a variety of nature-based recreational opportunities on public lands in its 16-county area. SFWMD has over 70 parking trailheads and over 50 campgrounds, including primitive, RV and equestrian campgrounds. There are over 350 miles of trails in addition to the 100’s of miles of canal/levees that are available for hiking and bicycling.
“Recreational lands are designed to maximize public opportunities while still providing the resource protection measures necessary to assure the lands are properly managed consistent with project purposes, conservation values and long-term public benefits,” said SFWMD Section Leader, Dan Cotter.
“Recreational opportunities provided on SFWMD-managed lands include hiking, bicycling, hunting, fishing, airboating, canoeing, camping, horseback riding, birding and other wildlife viewing.”
The SFWMD also works with volunteers in the five FTA local chapters surrounding the Lake Okeechobee area who help maintain trails and host group activities in SFWMD recreational areas.
The FWC was represented at the event by area biologists Carrie Kimbrough and Ryder Hochmuth. The FWC public lands in Glades and Hendry counties are part of its south region, which includes the three hiking trails in the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area.
“The FWC is very grateful for the assistance provided by FTA years ago in helping to create the Paradise Lake and Knobby Knee Trails at Fisheating Creek,” said Carrie Kimbrough. “We look forward to working with FTA volunteers in our future vegetation management projects on WMA trails in Glades County.”
All local FTA hiking and bicycling group activities are free and open to the public. For more information the Glades/Hendry chapter can be contacted at: FTAGladesHendry@yahoo.com or 865-617-2100.