By Natalie Strom
One thousand miles in one hundred days. This is the goal of The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Whether it be hiking, kayaking, horseback riding or wading through knee-deep swamps, Carlton Ward Jr., Joe Guthrie, Elam Stolfutz and Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, have been trekking across the state to raise awareness towards the need of a viable corridor, or natural passageway, from the Everglades to Georgia. This diverse team of four began their journey on January 17, right in our own backyard.
Beginning their trek in the Everglades National Park, the team is now only two weeks away from the Georgia border. Consisting of a conservation photographer (Ward), a bear biologist (Guthrie), a filmmaker (Stolfutz) and a conservationist (Lykes Dimmitt), The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition has been a “mix of exhaustion and exhilaration,” according to Ward, co-founder of the expedition.
To further understand the goals of the expedition, Coastal Breeze News caught up with Ward and the team as they hiked their way through Heart Island Conservation Area in Volusia County. Nestled between The Ocala National Forest and Daytona Beach, the 12,082 acre area of protected land was acquired with Preservation 2000 funds in 1994 to protect water resources. This is one of the main ideas behind the expedition. “One of the keys is helping to protect and restore the quality of water,” explains Ward. “ The current thinking is to protect green infrastructure rather than building grey infrastructure, or green versus concrete.”
This is echoed in the thoughts of Dr. Tom Hoctor, the co-founder of The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida and the science behind The Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN). The FEGN was designed in 1998 based on the need to connect areas of ecological significance statewide. This idea, in turn, brought about The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. As Hoctor explains, “Most land has been historically drained by myriad ditches and water control structures built over the last 100 years or so. That means that wetlands and floodplains that historically collected and stored water for many months into the dry season were converted to upland systems that promote the drainage of water instead.” These upland systems became ranches and farmland throughout the state.
“If you can work with ranchers and other landowners to help store water on their properties by having it flooded in a natural, historic way during certain times of the year, that accomplishes many of the water cleaning objectives and more. It helps reunite the wetlands, restore the wildlife habitat and cleans the water in natural ways,” adds Ward.
“This is what scientists and conservation planners call “dispersed water storage,” explains Hoctor. “Storing water in restored wetlands by plugging ditches and other low cost engineering techniques provides the opportunity for nutrients to settle out into the soil or be taken up by plants that results in cleaner water eventually being released downstream.”
In Florida’s case, “downstream” refers to both north and south. To the south, that water flows down through the Everglades; where the seven million people living in south Florida receive much of their clean water. The St. Johns River begins near Vero Beach and winds its way north for 310 miles through Jacksonville. Considered to be a blackwater stream, it is fed primarily by the swamps and marshes which lie beneath it.
This water system is essential for north Florida in the same way the Everglades is for the south.
“The ‘opportunity area’ is where we still have a chance to sustain and restore these connections,” states Ward. Shown on The Florida Wildlife Corridor map, these ‘opportunity areas’ are what the team hopes will eventually become protected; or in the case of private ownership, will work towards a common goal of sustaining the ecological network.
This network will benefit in a number of ways other than providing clean water via natural methods. According to Hoctor, “a protected Florida Wildlife Corridor will also provide an opportunity to expand the Florida panther population to significantly increase its chance of survival. The Florida Wildlife Corridor will also provide functional connections among four of Florida’s seven black bear populations. All Florida black bear populations are suffering from a lack of genetic diversity, and restoring functional connections among these populations will help restore that diversity, which in turn makes it much more likely the Florida black bears will be better able to adapt to future environmental changes. In addition, it will benefit many other native Florida wildlife species, and in aggregate, these wildlife species help provide the ecosystem functions or services that benefit all people across the state and elsewhere.”
“As we’ve developed Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, it’s effectively cut off north Florida from south Florida through much of the state,” adds Ward. Yet, there is hope, as I-4 is prepping for construction. Plans to expand to six lanes include the addition of three wildlife underpasses, such as those in place along I-75, or Alligator Alley. “It was really cool to experience both of those places because we walked beneath the I-75 wildlife underpass from the Picayune Strand State Forest into the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. We were able to see how effective those underpasses are through the footprints of bears, panthers, coyotes and all sorts of animals using them. So to visit a location on Interstate 4 a month or two later that’s experienced highway mortality from bears and other wildlife, and to see that there’s still a chance to establish a connection was really exciting.”
Establishing these connections will bring about many more welcome changes. “The corridor currently exists on the landscape so we aren’t trying to “create” one but protect it,” explains Hoctor. In doing so, this would help to sustain the food production, economies and cultural legacies of working ranches and farms within the corridor. Protecting these lands would also bolster local economies through increased opportunities such as hunting, fishing, birdwatching and other forms of eco-tourism.
Finally, the corridor would give wildlife and plants room to adapt to a changing climate and sea level rise over time.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was designed to not only show that it is still possible to protect these areas, but also to raise awareness to the necessity of these connections. Once one is educated, the next logical step is to take action. Those concerned about the fragmentation of the state can respond in a number of ways.
“First, follow the expedition on the Florida Wildlife Corridor webpage, through Facebook or Twitter. Let all of your friends, who might be interested, know about the project,” states Hoctor. “Read more about the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, which is the scientific foundation of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, on the Florida Department of Protection Office of Greenways and Trails website.”
“There are a few state and federal policies that are really important in helping to accomplish (a protected corridor). One is the Florida Forever program,” adds Ward. Florida Forever developed out of Preservation 2000, the program which saved Heart Island Conservation Area. Between these two programs, 2.5 million acres of naturally and culturally relevant land in Florida has been purchased since 1990. “Florida Forever prioritizes lands that have a connectivity value. Keeping that program vibrant and alive is important because it is probably the best state solution towards achieving the corridor.”
Ward continues, “on the federal level there’s some exciting opportunities through the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. It could protect a lot of habitat, primarily through conservation easement. In order for that to be funded and for those ranchers to be put into conservation, the U.S. congress needs to support funding of the land and water conservation fund. There’s a bill that passed the senate recently, called the RESTORE Act. That would offer $700 million a year for the federal land conservation budget. We need that because the Everglades headwaters and the greater Everglades are one of the few federal priorities for large landscape conservation.”
“Finally, get involved in local conservation planning, including efforts to fund local conservation land initiatives that can make important contributions to the efforts to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor and other wildlife and ecological corridors across the state,” adds Hoctor.
While the 100-day expedition is coming to a close, the mission does not end here. To learn more about the Florida Wildlife Corridor, visit www.floridawildlifecorridor.org. Follow the journey via their weekly YouTube videos or through Carlton Ward’s photography at www.carltonward.com.
More information on Florida Forever funds can be found at www.dep.state.fl.us/lands/fl_forever.htm.
Visit www.fws.gov/evergladesheadwaters/index.html to better understand the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge project and the establishment of an associated Everglades Headwaters Conservation Area.
To learn more about the Federal RESTORE Act, visit http://fl.audubon.org/citizens-guide-restore-act