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As Earth Day turns 50, a famed nature photographer weighs in on the lessons of nature

We talked to Carlton Ward Jr., a Pinellas County native and ‘National Geographic’ photographer for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which in 1970 began as a public uprising to express outrage over oil spills, smog and rivers so polluted they literally caught fire.

The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and led to the passage of landmark laws such as the Clean Air, Clean Water and the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the occasion, we talked to award-winning National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr. He grew up in Pinellas County in a family that has eight generations of heritage in Florida, including his great-grandfather, Doyle E. Carlton, who was Florida’s 25th governor from 1929-1933.

This 2010 photo is the third in a series by Carlton Ward Jr. called Moonrise Over Caladesi III. The National Geographic photographer, who grew up in Pinellas County, caught the full moon rise over Caladesi Island in the evening twilight just after sunset over Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Ward's great-grandfather Doyle Carlton. who was governor from 1929-1933, saw that the land was donated as a state park in the 1960s. [ CARLTON WARD JR. | Carlton Ward Jr. ]

Ward, 44, helped launch the drive to bring attention and protection to the state’s wild heart — the Florida Wildlife Corridor project started in 2010. He has since trekked more than 2,000 miles through the Corridor, during two National Geographic-supported expeditions, which both produced award-winning books, PBS films and widespread outreach for the statewide vision to keep Florida wild.

Related: Commentary: Florida Wildlife Corridor shows a narrow but promising path forward

In an interview conducted over Zoom this week from his home in Tampa, Ward talked about what he worries Earth Day will look like 50 years from now, but also the optimism he finds in the rebound some ecosystems are currently showing. All they needed was a break from humans for a few weeks.

Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic photographer. [ Carlton Ward Jr. ]

What started you on the path to becoming a conservation photographer?

I became a conservationist first. I fell in love with nature growing up on the gulf coast and exploring our family’s cattle ranch in Central Florida. Then I studied biology and anthropology at Wake Forest, and I grew increasingly concerned about the loss of species, habitats and local cultures. College is also when I got my first camera. When I came home to Tampa Bay as a photographer, I was overwhelmed by this magical convergence of elements and light we have on the gulf coast. I went to grad school for ecology at the University of Florida, where I also studied photojournalism and wrote a thesis that helped define the emerging field of conservation photography. After a few years putting the theory in practice in central and west Africa with the Smithsonian, I returned my focus full time to conservation issues in my native Florida.

You’ve had a storied career and were commended at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ceremony at the Natural History Museum in London in October 2019. Are there any images of our environment here that stand out as particularly striking to you?

In 1999, I captured the first in a series of photographs I call Moonrise over Caladisi, where I went to the north end of Clearwater Beach and waited for the moon to rise over Caladesi Island State Park using a long lens to compress several layers of marsh grass and mangroves and palms and pines. I was thinking this was probably how it looked for Spanish boats that came here for the first time. ... I learned that my great-grandfather Doyle Carlton, Florida’s 25th governor, had owned much of Caladesi Island and helped get it preserved as a state park.

Does the 50th anniversary of Earth Day arriving amid a global pandemic reveal any new insights for you?

The question for me becomes, what’s the Earth going to look like 50 years from now? That would be 2070. If we continue to sprawl the way we have been, we will have lost 5 million acres of land to roads and development. We would be turning most of our state and national parks into islands surrounded by development. It would also pretty much be an end to Florida agriculture.

Florida has an amazing legacy of conservation; we have about 27 percent of our land protected as public land. Texas or Georgia are like 5 percent or less. So that’s an amazing opportunity. But if we aren’t careful and continue as usual, a lot of that investment will be for naught because we will have removed the larger life support systems that allow the animals room to roam.

This 2017 photo by Carlton Ward Jr. shows one of the reasons the National Geographic photographer launched the initiative for Florida to preserve land for a Wildlife Corridor. A Florida black bear walks by a 500-year-old cypress tree near Big Cypress National Preserve. "I set a camera trap here for a year, seeking to show wildlife inhabiting this remote South Florida swamp which is filled with water at least half the year," he said. [ CARLTON WARD JR. | Carlton Ward Jr. ]

Why has the Wildlife Corridor been so important to you?

We are growing by about 1 million people every three years, leading to an average of 100,000 acres a year on average converted from agriculture space and natural land to roads and development. That’s the equivalent of half the size of Pinellas County every single year being converted out of natural land into developed land.

An alternative 2070 includes more investments into conservation easements, smarter urban spaces and we could save basically 5 million acres and preserve the integrity of the watersheds. We can choose the sustainable options. And that’s the vantage we can take in 2020 and pick our path. One path leads us to a scenario I don’t think anyone would want. It’s just going to take some discipline and planning to get there.

I’m hearing at least anecdotally that this lockdown is helping to clean up the water, air and ozone.

That’s really awesome. We just gave the Earth a few weeks of slowing down our pressure and there’s a resiliency. ... The hope I’m seeing is that it’s not too late, but that might not be the case 10 to 20 years from now if we don’t change course.

What practical action can people take?

Vote for conservation. Not just vote, but make sure our elected leaders know that conservation is important to us. Up until now it’s been treated like an extra. We have to place the need to invest in green infrastructure.

This is a pandemic of our own making, coming from the bush meat trade in China and harvesting wildlife unsustainably. So I hope if there is any silver lining to this crisis, people will recognize that nature is a source of our vitality and resiliency and our livelihoods and our health. By taking care of the health of nature, we are taking care of the health of people.

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