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New Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition aims to show what new toll roads would destroy

Prior expeditions highlighted connections between wilderness areas
Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition spend time at their camp site at the Lake Livingston Conservation Bank near Frostproof on Wednesday. The group is participating in an expedition through the center of the state, traveling by horseback and by foot. The travelers hope to show off Florida habitat that could be lost to development and the controversial new toll roads backed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition spend time at their camp site at the Lake Livingston Conservation Bank near Frostproof on Wednesday. The group is participating in an expedition through the center of the state, traveling by horseback and by foot. The travelers hope to show off Florida habitat that could be lost to development and the controversial new toll roads backed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Oct. 24, 2019
Updated Oct. 25, 2019

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.

RELATED: DeSantis signs off on toll road bill.

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.

RELATED: Proposed toll roads supposed to help rural areas but they don’t want them.

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.

Proposed corridors for three new toll road expansions. [LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times]

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.

RELATED: Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition calls attention to wildlife plight.

In 2012, Ward and some friends launched the very first Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition. It began with a simple question.

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.

Old live oak trees can be seen on ranch land which is a part of the Lake Livingston Conservation Bank near Frostproof, FL., Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

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.


  1. Debbie and her husband Michael, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, fish from the Dunedin Causeway Thursday. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission extended the period of catch and release for several species of fish along the west coast of Florida.
  2. A slurry of dead fish, the result of Red Tide, moved out of Clearwater Harbor on the north side of Sand Key Park during a 16-month-long algae bloom. So many fish were killed that the state is limiting anglers to catch-and-release when it comes to snook, redfish and sea trout.  [Times photo (2018) by Douglas R. Clifford]
  3. A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida is home to more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2008)]
  4. Pasco County commissioners introduced an ordinance Tuesday governing upkeep of empty property after residents complained about the condition of the Links Golf Club in Hudson, which closed in June 2019.
  5. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia on the floor of the Florida House in 2017. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  6. In this radar image from the National Weather Service's Key West facility, a massive flock of migratory birds is seen moving north early Monday. The green/yellow objects are biological objects flying north over the Keys. The darker blue objects indicate rain.
  7. These marine mammals were named "right whales" because they were considered by whalers to be "the right ones to hunt."
  8. Island Estates, a neighborhood in Clearwater Bay. There are three City Council races on this year's ballot as the city prepares for the realities of climate change.
  9. Florida Department of Environmental Protection staff conduct regular seagrass monitoring to assess the health and diversity of seagrass meadows within the St. Martins Marsh and Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserves north of Tampa Bay. A state legislator wants to extend the aquatic preserve to all of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts
  10. One of two dolphins found dead in Florida recently of gunshot or stab wounds.
  11. Florida stopped providing free juice at welcome centers last year. [Times (2015)]
  12. USF scientist Stephen Hesterberg holds two oyster shells from Crystal River -- one small and modern, the other large and prehistoric. Hesterberg was part of a team of scientists who have documented how Florida oysters have shrunk since prehistoric times. Climate change may be a factor. [Courtesy of the University of South Florida]