NEAR FROSTPROOF — A barefoot Carlton Ward Jr. sat on his haunches by a portable cooker, eating a bowl of instant grits and waiting for his soggy boots to dry out.
His colleagues Mallory Dimmitt, a vice president of Tampa-based Lykes Brothers, and biologist Joe Guthrie, were crouched nearby naming the various species they’d seen before a storm drenched them the day before: red-headed woodpeckers, great blue herons, night herons and a kingfisher.
Since 2012, Ward, a Tampa nature photographer, has been leading what he calls “Florida Wildlife Corridor” expeditions through the state’s remaining wild places to document their beauty and show how they can be connected so wide-ranging animals like bears and panthers have room to roam.
No prior expedition has had the urgency of the trek that he, Dimmitt and Guthrie embarked upon this week, though. The state’s controversial new toll roads, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, are likely to steamroll right through some of the areas that Ward and his fellow travelers say should be protected.
“We’ve got this chance to keep this corridor open,” Ward said. “We know what’s coming if we don’t.”
The three toll roads were proposed by Senate President Bill Galvano after meeting with and getting contributions from state road-builders and the Chamber of Commerce. They would link the little-used Suncoast Parkway to the Florida Turnpike and also extend it to Georgia, while also reviving the now-moribund Heartland Parkway between Polk and Collier counties.
Despite strong opposition from environmental and many community groups, DeSantis signed off on the toll road bill last spring, explaining, “I think we need new roads in Florida to get around."
A trio of advisory groups are now holding public hearings, but so far most of the comments have been from people opposed to the new roads disrupting rural areas.
Although the exact routes of the roads have yet to be announced, a map showing the general route for each shows that the highways would roll through a number of environmentally sensitive areas that are important either for habitat or for recharging the aquifer or both. They may then stimulate new development that would alter even more land used by wildlife.
For the Florida Wildlife Corridor group, that’s a serious concern. Their goal is to keep the state’s sensitive areas connected, not to chop them apart.
In 2012, Ward and some friends launched the very first Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition. It began with a simple question.
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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.
That’s how the idea for the wildlife corridor was born, with Ward organizing a group that included both biologists and documentary filmmakers to show what would be lost if the state let developers pave over it.
On the first trip they traveled 1,000 miles on foot, by horseback and bike and kayak. This week’s route, by contrast, is a mere 60 miles along the Lake Wales ridge, a remnant of an ancient sand dune that’s now considered scrub land.
Ward, before putting his boots back on and striking his tent, joked, “We’re camped on a 2 million year old beach here — and it might be beachfront again” because of rising sea level.
The crew set out on horseback Sunday from Highlands Hammock State Park, and by Tuesday evening they had crossed busy U.S. 27 and hiked to the 2,800-acre Lake Livingston Conservation Area in Polk County, a refuge for imperiled sand skinks. It also could wind up in the path of the proposed Heartland Parkway.
The travelers put up tents and camped there overnight, trying to dry out from the deluge they’d encountered. The storm also blessed them with a full rainbow that arched across the sky above a nearby pond full of noisy frogs.
Tagging along is a video crew to document everything. Meanwhile support personnel go ahead to pick out camping spots and ensure they have permission to cross private land. The trip is sponsored by, among other companies, Duke Energy and Dimmitt Chevrolet. Their goal was to finish their trek this weekend and celebrate at Bok Tower near Lake Wales.
Ward noted that even if the new toll roads provide underpasses for wildlife to use, that doesn’t spare the habitat needed on either sides of the highway. And then there’s the question of the cost of the three highways.
“These are resources that could be allocated for protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” he said.