When it's raining in the pine flatwoods of Central Florida, the shadowless light illuminates the scene so evenly that all details can be seen at once, from the fine textures of the pine bark and wiregrass to the expressions of the cowboys looking out from beneath their felt hats.
Cold raindrops were bouncing off the palmettos surrounding the trail and muffling the sounds of the herd of cattle approaching from the north. It was a moment to reflect — and to prepare. As I focused through longleaf pines waiting for yellow rain slickers to emerge into view, I thought about how this cattle drive connects us not just to our past but shows how we must act to save wild Florida now while we still can.
As the cattle drew closer, I braced my feet against the bed of my electric buggy and held on tight to the roof as my assistant drove through the palmettos to pick a new vantage, careful to stay well ahead of the herd. But just as I reset to photograph another approach, more than 100 cattle thundered past us, flanked by cowboys galloping at full speed, scrambling to contain the herd before it could fan out into a fenceless 20,000 acres in Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.
We later learned a startled white-tailed deer had caused the stampede when it jumped up from the palmettos and ran into the cattle. I swung my camera to try to capture the frenzy but mainly admired the scene, feeling fortunate to have witnessed such a wild moment in such a wild place in a state that is now home to 20 million people.
That was Day Four of this year's Great Florida Cattle Drive, when 500 participants, mostly on horseback, some in horse-drawn wagons, several on foot, spent a week driving a herd of nearly 500 cattle for 50 miles through the historic ranch country of Osceola County on the east side of Lake Kissimmee. The first Great Florida Cattle Drive was organized in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of statehood. The second was in 2006, which I had enthusiastically photographed during the early years of my Florida career. This drive, a few weeks ago, was the third.
Doyle Conner Jr. and the Yarborough family worked with a committee of volunteers to organize all three events. Their purpose: "Make it possible to let as many people as we can live the life of a Florida cow hunter on a cattle drive in the mid 1800s. Living this history, while having fun with our friends and horses, is one way of keeping our traditions and heritage alive."
I am drawn to this story in appreciation of the heritage but also by concern for the future of the lands that support it.
A lot has changed since the first Great Florida Cattle Drive in 1995. Florida's population has grown from 14 million to 20 million and more than 2 million acres (more than 3,000 square miles) of natural and agricultural lands have been lost to development.
That trend was apparent as I headed south down Canoe Creek Road to the starting point of the drive. New developments sprawled out from Kissimmee and St. Cloud, covering what had been ranch country just a few years before. I learned from the trail bosses that it had been increasingly difficult to find enough connected land for a cattle drive from one decade to the next and that the prospect of being able to do it again is very much in question.
It's when I think about the landscape of the cattle drive that my concern shifts from nostalgia for the heritage to fear for the future of Florida. Four years ago, I hiked across this cattle drive route on Day 53 of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1000-mile, 100-day trek from the Everglades to Georgia tracing the best remaining wildlife corridor through the Florida peninsula. Our team's mission was to show that a statewide wildlife corridor still existed and could still be saved.
Florida needs a wildlife corridor because wildlife need large connected habitats. A public preserve, whether a state park, state forest or national wildlife refuge, cannot support wide-ranging wildlife on its own. But a connected network of public conservation lands together with working farms and ranches can provide the habitat that animals like bears and panthers need to survive.
As Florida has rapidly developed, we have lost many habitat connections throughout the state. For example, Florida black bears were once in every county but now survive in seven semi-isolated subpopulations spread from the Everglades to Pensacola. Bears need corridors between their population centers, as do many of the other species that share their habitat.
Our remaining wildlife corridors are fragile and need protection as soon as possible for wildlife and for people. The alternative will be isolation and local extinction for many species and further disruption of the watersheds on which all Floridians depend. What we have learned about wildlife corridors is that the network of public preserves and working ranches on the east side of Lake Kissimmee is the last green space connecting the Greater Everglades to the south with the St. Johns River corridor to the north. In other words, enough development in the wrong places in this area and the Everglades could be forever cut off from the rest of Florida and North America.
Irreparable fragmentation of Florida is a real possibility if we don't aggressively fund conservation easements and strategic public land acquisitions. Seventy-five percent of the voting public supported this with the passage of Amendment 1. Now the lawmakers need to listen to the will of the people and spend at least $300 million per year on land protection in addition to Everglades restoration budgets if there is any hope to achieving sustainable balance to the 20 acres per hour or 175,000 acres per year that are being lost to development. Funding the proposed $35 million Rural and Family Lands Protection Program would be a good start. Ten times that much should be budgeted for Florida Forever.
The good news is that because there are still cattle ranches in Osceola County (and Orange County to the north), there is still hope for preserving a connected green corridor that will protect the headwaters of the Everglades and St. Johns rivers (watersheds that provide drinking water to more than 10 million people), sustain habitat corridors essential for wide-ranging wildlife like panthers and bears, and ensure that in another five or 10 years, the Great Florida Cattle Drive can happen again.
Carlton Ward Jr., a National Geographic Explorer focused on understanding and protecting wild Florida, wrote this essay specially for the Tampa Bay Times. His photographs are available through CarltonWard.com and his gallery in Tampa. Ward is the Rolex Artist-in-Exploration of the Explorers Club and a founder of Florida Wildlife Corridor project. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard.