From the Orange Audubon Society
To assist the St. Johns River Water Management District in orienting visitors to the increasingly popular Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive (LAWD), Orange Audubon Society has partnered with the district to roll out a Wildlife Drive Ambassador Program. The district constructed two shelters (information centers) for the program where, since starting on July 3, OAS volunteers provide information to both new and repeat visitors. District staff were at the information centers for three weekends to welcome visitors back following LAWD’s reopening on June 12.
Otter photo © 2017 Phoebe Gonsalves / Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive https://www.facebook.
“The district welcomes the passionate and knowledgeable assistance of the OAS ambassadors in helping LAWD visitors have a safe and educational visit,” said Maria Zondervan, district land manager.
The LAWD is part of the Lake Apopka North Shore — a 20,000-acre wetland area — owned and managed by the district to restore water quality in Lake Apopka. This free opportunity for families, photographers and birders to see wildlife from the comfort of their vehicles is provided by the district, which has made this 11-mile, one-way drive available to the public since May 2015. The 18-mile Lake Apopka Loop Trail opened in 2014 for bicycling and hiking.
Visitation has grown each year, increasing from approximately 100,000 visitors in 2018 to 124,000 in 2019. Its popularity far surpasses visitation of similar wildlife drives in National Wildlife Refuges in Florida, although LAWD is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays. To limit the transmission of COVID-19, the district asks that visitors stay in their vehicles and keep traffic through the drive flowing efficiently.
The district’s land resources staff, who are trained restoration and wildlife biologists, have managed LAWD while performing their restoration and management duties in addition to necessary seasonal wildlife management activities on other district properties. On March 13, vehicular access to LAWD was suspended due to the threat of COVID-19 and reopened on June 12 with changes needed to reflect current public health guidance.
LAWD is free and vehicular entrance gates at 2850 Lust Road, Apopka, are open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with exit by 5 p.m.) on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays.
For additional information on the Ambassador program, call 407-637-2525.
Orange Audubon Society (OAS), a Central Florida chapter of Audubon Florida and National Audubon Society, has a primary goal to support the district in restoring the Lake Apopka North Shore into a more natural, functioning wetland state because of its value in enhancing water quality and other water resource benefits, while providing valuable wetland wildlife habitat. Since the North Shore’s acquisition by the state in the late 1990s, OAS has taken a great interest in promoting public wildlife viewing opportunities there. OAS has endeavored to help the district enhance the LAWD experience for visitors by developing educational kiosks and materials, managing a Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Facebook page, having volunteers on the drive during the anniversary of its opening, and developing the annual North Shore Birding Festival that brings in birding ecotourists to learn about the ecological recovery of Apopka’s diverse ecosystems.