Earth Day 2012. Still wet from a daylong downpour, we paddled quietly through the Okefenokee Swamp, thoughts bouncing between the 100-day trek we were about to complete and the new journey unfolding before us.
The initial expedition that carried our team 1,000 miles from the Everglades into south Georgia had shown that a peninsular Florida Wildlife Corridor was still possible. With that hope came a growing realization that the final day of our trek was just the beginning of the effort needed to build a constituency for ultimately protecting the corridor, a connected pathway of permanently preserved public and private lands that would allow wildlife to move freely through the state.
The desire to move awareness into action followed in the wake of the 2012 expedition. How could our small group of explorers and the idea we were representing contribute to the large-scale conservation needed to connect and protect the corridor?
With encouragement from partners (land trusts, advocacy groups, landowners and public agencies), we worked from consensus to keep the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision alive and growing. We released a documentary film, published a book, penned articles, created a traveling exhibit, gave presentations and convened panel discussions across the state.
We then formed the Florida Wildlife Corridor into a nonprofit organization with the mission of protecting a functional ecological corridor for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds. Expedition member Mallory Lykes Dimmitt stepped up to be the executive director, leading the effort to expand the corridor into a statewide vision, seek formal designation and ultimately help protect the missing links needed to keep the corridor whole. Establishing a statewide vision meant a new map, and for our team, another expedition, which began this weekend.
The corridor is based on the existing science of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, including priorities for "critical linkages" across the state. Our team is working to put the map and conservation opportunities in the public mind. The 2012 expedition followed the best remaining corridor throughout the peninsula from the Everglades to Georgia, leaving the potential corridor from Central Florida through the Florida Panhandle unexplored.
With the help of Tom Hoctor from the Conservation Trust for Florida and Richard Hilsenbeck from the Nature Conservancy, we worked with renowned map artist Mike Reagan to create a new painting of the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. The next step was designing the route for the second expedition.
We decided to start in the Everglades Headwaters of Central Florida, at the midway point of the 2012 trek. We launched from the first protected parcel of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday and are tracking northwest into the Green Swamp and over to the Gulf of Mexico north of Tampa.
Nearly 1,000 miles of paddling, cycling and hiking will traverse a network of public and private conservation lands that includes marshes and springs of the Nature Coast, timberlands and swamps of the Big Bend, the Apalachicola River, segments of the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Forgotten Coast, longleaf pine forests, coastal dune lakes, blackwater creeks and species-rich ravines. After paddling the Perdido River on the Florida-Alabama border, the expedition will arrive at Gulf Islands National Seashore by March 20.
The team is motivated to celebrate the natural wonders of wild Florida that are hiding in plain sight to many Floridians. With the strong public mandate for public investment in conservation exhibited November in the passage of Amendment 1 — which requires the state to make a $20 billion investment to protect water and land over the next 20 years — we believe the Florida Wildlife Corridor presents a clear and logical vision for how the new funding could be spent for maximum benefit for people, water and wildlife.
The Tampa Bay Times will follow the journey, publishing journal entries each Sunday from the explorers and photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. In addition, each Saturday for the next 10 weeks, the public has an opportunity to explore rivers and trail with the Expedition team by signing up for Trailmixers at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org/Events or Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor. Here are some links on the Web and on social media:
Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor
Why they walk
• To connect, protect and restore corridors of conserved lands and waters essential for the survival of Florida's diverse wildlife
• To restore and protect our life-giving springs and rivers
• To sustain food production, economies and culture surrounding gulf seafood harvests
• To restore longleaf pine forests while conserving farms, working lands and the communities they support
• The Florida Wildlife Corridor encompasses 15.8 million acres — 9.5 million acres that are already protected and 6.3 million acres of remaining opportunity area that do not have conservation status. The exact proportion of the opportunity area that needs to be protected for functional connectivity within the corridor has not yet been determined.
• Protected areas include 4.7 million acres of federal land, 4.5 million acres of state land, 162,776 acres of county and city land and 204,232 acres of private land with permanent conservation status.
• There are 1.46 million acres within the corridor opportunity area that are high priority for conservation through the state of Florida's Florida Forever program and approximately 600,000 acres that are priorities for conservation through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Greater Everglades Program (including the new 150,000-acre Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area project).
• The corridor provides habitat for 42 federally listed endangered species, 24 threatened species and 15 candidate species. At the state level, there are an additional 176 species listed as endangered, 56 as threatened and 29 as species of special concern.
• Examples of threatened and endangered species include crested caracara, Everglades snail kite, Florida grasshopper sparrow, Florida scrub-jay, red-cockaded woodpecker, whooping crane, wood stork, Florida panther, West Indian manatee, green sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, Gulf sturgeon, Okaloosa darter, sand skink, Eastern indigo snake, frosted flatwoods salamander, Highlands tiger beetle, Choctawhatchee beach mouse, piping plover, Etoniah rosemary and Okeechobee gourd.
• There are 992 named rivers and streams crossing the Corridor that include 1,150 miles of designated paddling trails. There are 920 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail within the corridor.
Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, Conservationist
Mallory Lykes Dimmitt is a seventh generation Floridian whose childhood was partly spent exploring the lands and waters of Central Florida. She pursued her passion for the outdoors into a career, receiving her B.S. in natural resources from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She was also awarded a Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship at Duke University's Nicholas School of Environment where she earned a master's of environmental management.
Some of Mallory's projects include protecting river corridors and large landscapes in Southwest Colorado and across the Colorado Plateau with the Nature Conservancy, research abroad for the International Water Management Institute and strategic planning and organizational development for the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Instagram @mdimmitt; Twitter @mdimmitt
Joe Guthrie, Wildlife Biologist
Joe Guthrie is a wildlife biologist based in St. Petersburg. He works as a consultant for the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Joe is a graduate of Centre College with a bachelor's degree in English, as well as a master's of science in forestry from the University of Kentucky.
Joe's graduate school research on Florida black bears in South Central Florida provided the inspiration for the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, and was a key factor in the establishment of Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge. His work with NWRA focuses on expanding the National Wildlife Refuge System throughout the Gulf Region, including the Florida Everglades.
Instagram @joeguthrie8; Twitter @JoeGuthrie8
Carlton Ward Jr., Conservation Photographer
Carlton Ward Jr is a conservation photographer and eighth generation Floridian focused on Florida's living heritage. His work has been published in Audubon, Smithsonian, Geo, Nature Conservancy and National Geographic magazines and regularly in the Tampa Bay Times, where he was a photo intern in 2001. His books include the Edge of Africa (2003), Florida Cowboys (2009) and Florida Wildlife Corridor: Everglades to Okefenokee (2013).
Carlton has a master's in ecology from the University of Florida and wrote the first thesis on the field of conservation photography. He is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), National Geographic Explorer and Fellow of the Explorers Club. He founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign in 2010.
Instagram @CarltonWard Twitter @CarltonWard