Earth Day 2012. Still wet from a daylong downpour, we paddled quietly through the Okefenokee Swamp, thoughts bouncing between the 100-day trek we were about to complete and the new journey unfolding before us.
The initial expedition that carried our team 1,000 miles from the Everglades into south Georgia had shown that a peninsular Florida Wildlife Corridor was still possible. With that hope came a growing realization that the final day of our trek was just the beginning of the effort needed to build a constituency for ultimately protecting the corridor, a connected pathway of permanently preserved public and private lands that would allow wildlife to move freely through the state.
The desire to move awareness into action followed in the wake of the 2012 expedition. How could our small group of explorers and the idea we were representing contribute to the large-scale conservation needed to connect and protect the corridor?
With encouragement from partners (land trusts, advocacy groups, landowners and public agencies), we worked from consensus to keep the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision alive and growing. We released a documentary film, published a book, penned articles, created a traveling exhibit, gave presentations and convened panel discussions across the state.
We then formed the Florida Wildlife Corridor into a nonprofit organization with the mission of protecting a functional ecological corridor for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds. Expedition member Mallory Lykes Dimmitt stepped up to be the executive director, leading the effort to expand the corridor into a statewide vision, seek formal designation and ultimately help protect the missing links needed to keep the corridor whole. Establishing a statewide vision meant a new map, and for our team, another expedition, which began this weekend.
The corridor is based on the existing science of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, including priorities for "critical linkages" across the state. Our team is working to put the map and conservation opportunities in the public mind. The 2012 expedition followed the best remaining corridor throughout the peninsula from the Everglades to Georgia, leaving the potential corridor from Central Florida through the Florida Panhandle unexplored.
With the help of Tom Hoctor from the Conservation Trust for Florida and Richard Hilsenbeck from the Nature Conservancy, we worked with renowned map artist Mike Reagan to create a new painting of the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. The next step was designing the route for the second expedition.
We decided to start in the Everglades Headwaters of Central Florida, at the midway point of the 2012 trek. We launched from the first protected parcel of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday and are tracking northwest into the Green Swamp and over to the Gulf of Mexico north of Tampa.
Nearly 1,000 miles of paddling, cycling and hiking will traverse a network of public and private conservation lands that includes marshes and springs of the Nature Coast, timberlands and swamps of the Big Bend, the Apalachicola River, segments of the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Forgotten Coast, longleaf pine forests, coastal dune lakes, blackwater creeks and species-rich ravines. After paddling the Perdido River on the Florida-Alabama border, the expedition will arrive at Gulf Islands National Seashore by March 20.
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The team is motivated to celebrate the natural wonders of wild Florida that are hiding in plain sight to many Floridians. With the strong public mandate for public investment in conservation exhibited November in the passage of Amendment 1 — which requires the state to make a $20 billion investment to protect water and land over the next 20 years — we believe the Florida Wildlife Corridor presents a clear and logical vision for how the new funding could be spent for maximum benefit for people, water and wildlife.