Pine trees on a grassy plain dotted with yellow flowers.
Rafter T Ranch native wildflowers dot the pine flatwoods. © Wendy Mathews/TNC

Stories in Florida

Rafter T: Ranching for Nature

After almost a decade of efforts spearheaded by TNC, conservation easements now safeguard 5,100 acres from development.

Just a few short miles from bustling U.S. Route 27 lies a surprisingly remote and rugged landscape. Located along the ancient and biodiverse Lake Wales Ridge in Sebring, Florida, the Rafter T Ranch is a family-owned cattle ranch spanning 5,100 acres. After almost a decade of efforts spearheaded by TNC, nearly the entire acreage has been protected by conservation easements that safeguard the property from development.

Sandy ground, shrubby plants and a bright blue sky.
Oak-dominated scrub with white sand Home to federally threatened Florida scrub jays and numerous other rare species. © Wendy Mathews/TNC

The landscape here is distinctive of this stretch of Central Florida. Some of the site is made up of Florida scrub, an endangered habitat found only in the Sunshine State. Known for its dry, white sands speckled with evergreen shrubs and dwarf oaks, the scrub habitat is an often-underappreciated haven for rare plants and wildlife. Elsewhere on the property are pine flatwoods interspersed with lush grasslands, freshwater marshes and cabbage palm hammocks—stands of palms rising like green islands from the flat landscape beyond. Together, these unique Florida habitats play host to a rich assortment of species, and help defend the waters of the Everglades.

Iconic Species

The lands in and around Rafter T Ranch are home sweet home for at least 12 federally threatened and endangered animals. Among them are wood storks, the crested caracara and the iconic Florida scrub jay—a pale blue acorn-eater beloved as the only bird species found exclusively in Florida. Rafter T’s marshes are also a welcome stopover for waterfowl such as ducks, storks, egrets and Florida sandhill cranes.

White shorebirds wading in a shallow pond surrounded by a grassy area with grazing cattle.
Rafter T Ranch Grazing land inundated with water from wet season with a variety of wading birds including the federally threatened wood stork. © Wendy Mathews/TNC
A panther walks along a wooded trail towards the camera.
Florida Panther Roaming in the wild. © Carlton Ward Jr.

Bigger creatures also roam the lands on and around Rafter T Ranch, including Florida black bears and endangered Florida panthers. Fewer than 200 Florida panthers remain in the world, almost entirely in the southwestern part of the state. Conservationists agree that for the species to survive and thrive, the big cats must grow their population beyond that pocket of southwest Florida. But to do so, these wide-ranging animals need large, connected landscapes. Protecting this stretch of Central Florida will help to ensure that panthers continue to have a safe place in which to roam.

Explore Rafter T Ranch Wildlife

Rafter T Ranch is home to a number of endangered and threatened species. Protection of the ranch will provide an opportunity for these imperiled animals to thrive and increase their populations in the future.

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Closeup of an alligator's head.
A large dark brown squirrel on a tree trunk.
A blue and white jay with bands on both legs.
Two pink and white shorebirds with spoon-shaped bills.
Underside of a small black and white hawk.
A mother black bear on the ground with cubs in a tree.
Wood stork parents in the nest with a young stork.
A brown falcon with a white neck in flight.
Closeup of the head of a bald eagle.
Legs, neck and head of a large crane.

Connected Landscapes

Rafter T Ranch is special in part for its proximity to a host of other protected lands. It’s located just east of the Lake Wales Ridge, a distinctive and ancient ecosystem of sand dunes protected by the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge. The area is also home to a number of other conservation lands, including properties owned, protected, and managed by TNC: Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee, Tiger Creek Preserve in Babson Park, Saddle Blanket Scrub Preserve in Frostproof, and Venus Flatwoods Preserve in Venus.

The Rafter T property is situated within the Avon Park Air Force Range Sentinel Landscape, an impressive stretch of almost 1,700,000 acres known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of private ranchlands. One of only seven such designations across the country, the Sentinel Landscape partnerships were created by the USDA, Department of Defense, and the Department of the Interior to engage federal, state, and local partners to work together to preserve the region’s natural habitats and strengthen military readiness by helping private landowners manage their properties sustainably.

A large reservoir edged by grass and trees.
Reservoir for water storage Adjacent to Arbuckle Creek, it stores water and helps to recharge critical groundwater. © Wendy Mathews/TNC

Protecting the Everglades

The Everglades provides fresh water to nearly eight million people and provides habitat for countless other species. Yet decades of development and drainage have shrunk Florida’s most important and iconic grassland. One of the many ways TNC is protecting this critical habitat is by safeguarding lands in the Northern Everglades Watershed.

The marshes of Rafter T Ranch have a role to play in both the quality and quantity of the water in the watershed. The property is bordered to the east by Arbuckle Creek, a well-protected waterway that flows south to Lake Istokpoga before continuing on to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades to the south. Waters also pool in the marshes of this flat ranchland, collecting and then soaking ever so slowly into the ground below. In the process, the water is filtered of pollutants before seeping into the underlying aquifer, where it recharges critical groundwater stores.

A stream runs past trees hanging with Spanish moss.
Arbuckle Creek Natural stream which forms the entire eastern boundary of the property. © Wendy Mathews/TNC
Cow and calf.
Rafter T Ranch Cow and her calf in the pine flatwoods. © Wendy Mathews/TNC

A Commitment to Conservation

Rafter T Ranch is no stranger to conservation. This working cattle ranch is owned by the Wohl family, which has long been committed to managing the property sustainably. Over the years, the ranch’s owners have engaged in land management practices, water conservation projects, and habitat restoration efforts aimed at supporting the natural flow and storage of water through the ecosystem and providing connected habitat for wildlife.

TNC worked with the Wohl family to protect this special piece of land through a series of conservation easements, beginning in 2013 and wrapping up in 2019. Sustainable ranching operations continue as we work together to ensure this distinctive slice of Central Florida remains a place where freshwater flows and wildlife roams, far into the future.

Tall pines with a shrubby understory.
Rafter T Ranch Pine trees soar into the clear blue sky above the ranch. © Wendy Mathews/TNC