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Perspective: A clear path to saving wild Florida (w/video)

The Perdido River sweeps us between white sand shoals and steep forested banks as it winds out of longleaf pine uplands down toward the Gulf of Mexico. The waterway is alive; the river's current thrums beneath us, and the chatter of newly arrived songbirds reverberates from the trees.

For 10 weeks, we've been hiking, biking and paddling from the Everglades Headwaters to Gulf Islands National Seashore, proving that it's feasible to designate and protect a statewide wildlife corridor to ensure the long-term survival of Florida's unique and endangered fauna, including the Florida panther. And now we're at the end, with lessons learned and a redoubled sense of what Florida has to gain — and what it has to lose if the Legislature fails to use Amendment 1 money as people intended in overwhelmingly supporting it.

Forming the boundary between Florida and Alabama, the Perdido carries us for the final few days of the Glades to Gulf Expedition. As we draw nearer to Perdido Bay, the river widens among flooded forest, slowing and shifting with daily pulses of tide. Once in the saltwater, we paddle the intercoastal waterway through Big Lagoon to Gulf Islands National Seashore and our end point near Fort Pickens, a historic armament guarding the entrance to Pensacola Bay.

Family and friends await our landing. After a symbolic swim in the gulf, we celebrate over a picnic and casual ceremony. Spirits are high, thinking about the fantastic wild places we've experienced and the people whose foresight and dedication has protected the natural gems strung throughout our journey. But new awareness and a tugging urgency shape the mood about the work yet to be done — the need to fill in the gaps and protect the missing links so that the Florida Wildlife Corridor can remain intact for future treks and future generations.

This has been a real journey of discovery. Even for experienced explorers who have spent a lot of time in Florida's backcountry, there were surprises and lessons around every corner. Mapping out each mile of the route in advance gave us a baseline familiarity, but to be immersed in the woods and waters of the Florida Wildlife Corridor for 70 straight days provided new levels of insight about the challenges and opportunities for its conservation.

From the Green Swamp to Chassahowitzka, from the Nature Coast and the Forgotten Coast, from freshwater springs to gulf beaches, from the 16 rivers we paddled to the hundreds of miles of upland and swamp trails we hiked, from Panhandle bays to their headwaters in the longleaf pines, from public parks to private conservation successes, we were awed by the natural beauty, wildness and opportunity we encountered every single day.

The takeaway is that a statewide wildlife corridor really is possible — it exists right now even where it lacks formal protection. We were able to travel 1,000 miles mostly laying footsteps in wild enough places that a bear or panther could follow. This is a testament to conservation success from decades past, including the Florida Forever program that is responsible for many of our state's water and wildlife management areas, and an impressive network of state forests and nationally acclaimed state parks. But it's also a reminder of the importance of working agricultural lands as part of the matrix of connected habitat, in particular the millions of acres of pine timberlands in the Big Bend and Panhandle.

The journey also drew our attention to the gaps in protected habitat — the "missing links" of the corridor. Traversing these missing links was a wake-up call; many of the corridor connections are impermanent, fragile and can easily be lost.

There is a lot at stake with the future of missing links. For example, we explored vast wild places like Apalachicola National Forest and a million acres of associated conservation land that is a solid hub for the corridor, and further west a similar-sized wealth of protected lands including Eglin Air Force Base, Blackwater River State Forest and Alabama's Conecuh National Forest. But the lands in between are not secure. Road-widening projects and a new airport inland from Panama City hint at the population and development to come, threatening to create hard edges and their resulting impediments to the largest contiguous longleaf pine forest left on the planet.

There were also hopeful signs for protecting missing links, such as the Coastal Headwaters Forest Florida Forever project we toured in the western Panhandle. It presents an innovative model for conserving, restoring and sustainably harvesting 100,000 acres of longleaf pine forests on private lands in Florida with a matching scale in Alabama. But the project cannot progress or succeed without public investment in conservation easements, providing capital needed for restoration and preventing the land from being developed.

After witnessing the needs and opportunities firsthand, we expedition team members are disheartened by the environmental budget proposals coming out of the Florida House and Senate — as are likely of most of the voting public. Nearly 75 percent of Florida voters gave clear support for Amendment 1 and its stated purpose of investing in land and water conservation. But from more than $700 million in new conservation dollars available, the House and Senate budget proposals average just $6 million to Florida Forever, which historically received at least $300 million per year.

The budgets proposed shortchange Florida's science-based and publicly vetted Florida Forever list, which prioritizes 2.2 million acres of land still needing conservation funding, 1.15 million acres of which are critically important to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. These priority lands can be protected by using both public purchase and conservation easements, which compensate owners for the development rights to keep the lands green in perpetuity.

The House budget for Rural and Family Lands recognizes the value of easements by providing $25 million for agricultural protection on working ranches and timberlands. But at this pace it could take a century to realize conservation goals that with more focused funding could be achieved in a decade.

Our team would like to see a robust and sustained investment — at least in keeping with the Florida Forever budgets before the recent recession — in order to protect the acres needed to complete the Florida Wildlife Corridor. This is a timely investment to protect wild Florida, and to ensure its continued capacity to sustain the lives and economies of all who call the state home.

Each Sunday for past 10 weeks in Perspective, the Tampa Bay Times followed the expedition's journey, publishing journal entries. On the cover of Perspective we reprise each of the Carlton Ward Jr. photographs that illustrated that week's entry, which you may read at http://tbtim.es/wildlifecorridor.

Perspective: A clear path to saving wild Florida (w/video) 03/27/15 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2015 6:58pm]
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