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  1. Opinion

Perspective: At Eglin Air Force Base, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition takes a walk on the wild side

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist Bill Tate nets an Okaloosa darter from a creek on Eglin Air Force Base. The darter is a special case — 95 percent of its entire population lives within the base. With help, the darter has rebounded. Eglin protects 464,000 acres of land — more than half open for public recreation — and is a key hub of the Florida Wildlife Corridor in the Panhandle. 
Published Mar. 15, 2015

Editor's note: The three members of the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition are filing weekly dispatches of their 1,000-mile, 10-week journey to highlight the value of keeping an open pathway through the state for wildlife. Here is the story of the ninth week.

Our team likes to joke that you can forecast when the next winter storm is arriving just by scanning the expedition itinerary, as bad weather is perfectly timed with the first day of each of the planned backcountry, fully self-supported legs of our trek. We're proud of this unerring correlation when we look back, and humbly resigned to this truth when planning and packing out the next mini-journey in our adventure.

True to form, our first day of backpacking on Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle was rainy and wet, followed by cool and windy and then cold and windy. We did our best to defy the elements for a time, blocking the wind from the camp stove, starting a fire and feeding it, moving closer and closer to the hot coals until the desire to get in our sleeping bags overpowered the waning warmth of the fire.

The next morning was sunny and crisp. It's not every day that you get to hike or paddle your way through a military base, or so I'd thought. When we went to pick up our permit at Jackson Guard, we learned that much of the base is open to the public for various types of recreation via a permit system and a map of planned area closures that is updated each evening for the following days. Florida Trail folks and Eglin managers worked to route miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail along the northern periphery of the base, and to implement a registration system to allow through-hikers to camp at designated sites. Volunteers construct and maintain the trail here just like the rest of the trail, and we found it in excellent condition, with sturdy bridges and creek crossings, and elevated timbers to keep feet dry in the persistently wet locations. There were no signs of military training despite the warning of unexploded ordinances, and the rumbling noises in the distance were the only reminders that you're on an active base. This hiking on Eglin is varied, with plant communities and topography ranging from the top of sandhills and along steephead ravine edges down to innumerable sparkling, sandy-bottomed, clear water creek crossings.

I'd been looking forward to Eglin for a long time, and it did not disappoint. The base and its partnerships are known in conservation circles for pioneering the use of prescribed fire, and for all aspects of longleaf pine ecosystem restoration. Longleaf has been reduced to less than 3 percent of its original range across the southeastern United States, and Eglin has some of the remaining and rare old growth. Eglin is also lauded for conservation successes with recovery of threatened and endangered species, such as the Okaloosa darter, a fish that lives almost entirely in six streams on the base. The 460,000-plus-acre size of the base is impressive and important for conservation. In addition to its core mission, the base is the keystone in the middle of a connected and protected landscape that spans more than a million acres from the Choctawhatchee River to Conecuh National Forest in Alabama. We hike on, anxious to be on time to meet Brig. Gen. David Harris, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and adjacent private landowners MC and Stella Davis, to celebrate the different strands of fabric of land ownership that weave together to embody the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Follow their progress here in Perspective, at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org, wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/term/florida-wildlife-corridor-expedition and on social media: Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor; Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor. Follow Ward's photography at Instagram.com/CarltonWard and Facebook.com/CarltonWardPhotography.

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