The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is the brainchild of Clearwater resident Carlton Ward Jr., who calls himself "an environmental photojournalist." He's produced two books, The Edge of Africa and Florida Cowboys.
Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian, became intrigued by research that biologist Joe Guthrie had been doing on black bears and how they roamed across a mosaic of public and private property. Panthers and other imperiled species have been documented doing the same thing.
Later, when he heard University of Florida scientist Tom Hoctor talk about the importance of connecting all those lands, Ward raised his hand and asked what was stopping anyone from stringing them together.
"Little did I know that I was getting into a three-year endeavor," he said.
He and Guthrie plotted a route, commissioned a map and started organizing their trip. They'll be joined by documentary filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt on the trek. The trip is expected to take them 100 days —- depending, Ward joked, on how many wrong turns they take.
One idea they're promoting is the purchase of development rights from ranchers and other big landowners, instead of state or federal officials buying the land outright. That would save the taxpayers money and allow ranchers to continue making use of the property, keeping it on the tax rolls.
By undertaking this trip, he said, the landowners will see "we're not just a bunch of environmentalists coming out here in their air-conditioned cars to tell them about their property."
Funding is the key, he said — not only for creating the wildlife corridor, but for the expedition as well. "We're about $50,000 short of what we need," he said about a week before the trip's scheduled kickoff.
Looking ahead to the challenges facing them, Ward said the biggest one is just "getting to the starting line."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]