Florida Wildlife Corridor Update

by Carlton Ward Jr

This has been an incredible year for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team. We spent the first four months of 2012 hiking, paddling and peddling through the heart of Florida, from Florida Bay in Everglades National Park to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia, all to show that a connected corridor for water, wildlife and people is still possible today. The Expedition was a great success. We trekked more than 1000 miles in 100 days, partnered with hundreds of people and organizations to share their stories, conducted 90 interviews, shot 40,000 photographs and captured more than 100 hours of HD video. Two-hundred plus articles were published about the Florida Wildlife Corridor and Google search returns for "Florida Wildlife Corridor" grew from scarcely existent to 475 different web pages. In fact, if you search for "Wildlife Corridor," FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org is now the top return next to the Wikipedia definition of Wildlife Corridor. We are especially thankful to all of the sponsors and partners who have contributed to the project's initial success.

Carlton Ward Jr and Joe Guthrie pole through the Shark River Slough in the Everglades.
(Photo by Carlton Ward Jr)

Entering the New Year, we are looking forward to growing the public awareness that will be needed to help grow the Florida Wildlife Corridor from vision to reality. We have big plans, including a documentary film by Elam Stoltzfus that will debut in April on PBS stations in Florida and then throughout the United States, a book on the expedition and a traveling exhibit of photographs and maps, all to premiere with a film screening at the Tampa Bay History Center in March. We will also produce a series of community programs throughout Florida, including a series of lectures and panel discussions. Please check back with our website and Facebook page for more details. 

We are excited to announce that the Florida Wildlife Corridor is partnering with the Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture (LINC) to direct public communications. With a mission to celebrate and protect Florida's natural and cultural heritage through art, and with Mallory Dimmitt and me as board executives, LINC is well positioned to continue growing the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision through a statewide network of artists and conservation partners. A stakeholders workshop at Archbold Biological Station in September concluded that we should hire a staff director to coordinate the communications and conservation campaign. We now need your help and ask you to please consider making a donation to this cause. 

Please enjoy the excellent article, Reflections from Our Conservation Mission, by Expedition co-leader Joe Guthrie, check out our initial calendar of events for 2013 and continue to share the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision while we still have a chance to make it a reality. Thank you and Happy New Year!

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Reflections from Our Conservation Mission
by Joe Guthrie

Near the end of their trek, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team paddles up the Suwannee River toward the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Genevieve Dimmitt)
On January 17th, 2012, I along with three fellow conservationists paddled our gear-laden kayaks out of the Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park, heading north. We were at the beginning of what we were calling the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Our journey would eventually lead us all the way to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in south Georgia, one hundred days and roughly one thousand miles later. We would pass through the River of Grass, standing upright in our kayaks, using push-poles to propel ourselves across the vast watery plain. In Collier County and Hendry County we followed the tracks of the Florida panther and the black bear through patchy oak hammocks and low-lying cypress domes, at one point finding the imprints of both within inches of each other along the edge of a sandy forest trail. We swam across the Caloosahatchee River and paddled down Fisheating Creek to Lake Okeechobee, where we saw snail kites working over newly-restored freshwater marshes. We hiked across the ranchlands of the Kissimmee Prairie and found our way to the headwaters of the Everglades just south of Orlando. Our team paddled the St. Johns River, winding north through a maze of river channels just inland from the Atlantic Coast. The Florida National Scenic Trail led us through Ocala National Forest, where we dove in the famous freshwater springs. The trek finished with an April ascent of the Suwannee River, paddling against the flow beneath Ogeechee tupelos and dwarf cypress, all the way to the headwaters in Okefenokee Swamp.  

As we left Flamingo, very little of what was to come was in my mind. The frantic pace of our preparations in the final three months leading up to the launch had culminated with one last sleepless night wiring batteries to solar panels and downloading digital maps that would guide us through the labyrinthine mangrove waterway. Mentally and physically I was already exhausted. But by the time we reached our first campsite, an elevated chickee in a moonlit bay twelve miles north of Flamingo, the weight of the planning, fundraising and outfitting phase was beginning to lift.  

When I woke refreshed in the morning of the first full day I was reminded of the connection that had pulled me into the Florida Wildlife Corridor project. The expedition leader, conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr, sat down on the platform and read from The Fragmented Forest, the classic text from University of Florida professor of conservation biology Larry Harris. In his book, Dr. Harris makes the case for managing forests to keep them connected in an integrated system of forest “islands.” He called it the “island archipelago approach,” and it was a method designed to conserve blocks of habitat and keep the blocks connected to one another. He saw this as a solution to the problems caused by the deepening isolation of our national parks and large nature reserves, as we build roads and rural sprawl eats into the countryside. By connecting these “islands” with protected movement pathways we could allow animals to disperse and reproduce, counteracting the effects of isolation and hopefully preserving biotic diversity. 

Dr. Harris’ work left an impact on the field of wildlife management and attracted the attention of several graduate students who would go on to become leaders in the field of conservation biology, particularly in Florida. One of them was my eventual graduate school advisor, Dave Maehr, through whom I befriended Dr. Harris. Another of these students was Tom Hoctor of the University of Florida’s Department of Landscape Ecology. Hoctor – or Dr. Hoctor, to those unfamiliar – would go on to develop the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN) and the Critical  Linkages. It was this science that inspired the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition (many others, including yet another former Harris advisee Dr. Reed Noss, contributed earlier versions of the same idea – a system of large reserves connected by corridors spanning the entire state).

Day breaks over the first campsite of the expedition, at the Joe River chickee in Everglades National Park. Carlton Ward Jr reads from Larry Harris' book, The Fragmented Forest. (Photo by Joe Guthrie)

That moment at breakfast on the first full day clarified the role of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition for me. The four of us weren’t there to do any groundbreaking scientific research, as Dr. Harris and his colleagues had. We had not dictated to anyone where we thought the best wildlife corridor through the state actually lay. We had pre-existing corridor initiatives like the Ocala to Osceola (O2O) Corridor and Tom Hoctor’s FEGN data to make those decisions. We weren’t trying to own any new idea. And certainly many thousands of Native Americans, early explorers and settlers had traipsed from one end of the state to the other, several times over in some cases, wholly lacking in the fancy gadgetry that would ensure we stayed on course and connected with the outside world. Our purpose, as inheritors of the idea, was to provide the next step in the realization of a connected Florida. We felt that the next step was for Floridians to know and come to care about each of the components that make wild Florida itself.

Mallory Dimmitt pauses during a 20 mile day, traveling on horseback from the Creek Ranch near Haines City to The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve.  The expedition was joined by members of the Northern Everglades Alliance, a group of cattlemen representing roughly 1 million acres of the Everglades watershed who are interested in conservation programs to restore and protect the southward flow of water. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr)

Using social media and our blog, and by producing regular radio and television spots for PBS, we managed to do much of what we set out to do with the expedition. We wanted the expedition to be the lens into the landscape and the people who work to protect it. To make sure this objective was met, the team included two of Florida’s best visual artists in Carlton and videographer/film producer Elam Stoltzfus. We had large landscape/watershed conservationist and social media coordinator Mallory Lykes Dimmitt to guide our outreach campaign. The images and video that emerged from Carlton and Elam are stunning, and we’ll be able to use them to continue pushing the message as we move forward. 

In moving forward, the work we started with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition will become decidedly less physical, at least for now. The success of the expedition has given added incentive to pursue the protection of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The most immediate need is to continue the type of compelling communications that drive interest to conservation successes within the state and the corridor opportunity area. Maintaining our messaging will increase recognition of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and the various agency and NGO partners working to protect land and water resources in the opportunity area. We hope that these groups will find value in associating their efforts with the Florida Wildlife Corridor concept. 

From the beginning, we drove the message that conservation programs like Florida Forever and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund need to have full funding. Secondly, we encouraged support for Florida land trusts, in particular our partner organization, the Conservation Trust for Florida (CTF), which is responsible for thousands of acres of conservation land in north central Florida and the O2O. 

The team packs out on Earth Day 2012 in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Left to right are Mallory Dimmitt (hidden), Joe Guthrie, Carlton Ward Jr and Elam Stoltzfus. (Photo by Mac Stone)

During the trek we witnessed again and again how focused local efforts can provide large pieces of the puzzle in the statewide network. Lee County has a corridor network it protects. Archbold Biological Station has identified important habitat corridors in Highlands County. Volusia County has its renowned program Volusia Forever, which has pieced together a natural corridor over time. CTF has worked tirelessly to develop the O2O. Other land trusts like Alachua Conservation Trust and the Putnam Land Conservancy have been effective agents within communities.  

In the course of the journey we crossed 23 private cattle ranches, many of which still need protection. In Florida, these lands are the backbones of the Critical Linkages. They support threatened wildlife, they absorb excess nutrients that pollute water, and they enable the five century-old tradition of Florida cattle ranching to persist. Far from being marginal conservation land, the ranches are in many cases rich with endemic species and plant communities. These lands form the links in the archipelagos that Larry Harris envisioned. 

Upcoming Events

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Keynote Presentation by Elam Stoltzfus
January 18 & 19, 2013, 5:30 - 7:00 pm | Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Preserve
300 Tower Road, Naples, FL 34113 | view event details

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition Film Premiere:
Presentation by Elam Stoltzfus & Carlton Ward Jr
February 15, 2013, 5:00 - 7:00 pm | Bok Tower Gardens
1151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL 33853 | view event details

Marjorie Stoneman Douglass Festival: Presentation by Elam Stoltzfus
March 22, 2013 | Everglades City Museum
105 West Broadway, Everglades City, FL 34139