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  1. Opinion

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition's long journey comes to an end

Once occupying 90 million acres of the southeastern United States, longleaf forests, one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet, now cover less than 3 percent of their historic range. The largest contiguous one survives in northwest Florida and southern Alabama on Nokuse Plantation, Eglin Air Force Base, Blackwater River State Forest (pictured) and Conecuh National Forest.
Published Mar. 20, 2015

Editor's note: The three members of the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition have filed 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 10th and final week.

The expedition is concluding with a series of river explorations on the western Panhandle. We left our hiking route on Eglin Air Force Base from the town of Crestview, launching on the Shoal River, headed west. After one day on the Shoal we reached the confluence with the Yellow River, with Eglin still to the south.

Spring has finally replaced winter during the past week. The cypress trees have still yet to leaf out en masse here, but there are other signs that the changeover is happening quickly. Red maple trees are everywhere along these rivers, and their winged seeds, called samaras, arrive in a burst of scarlet color each spring. The first evening on the Yellow River I waded out into waist-deep water to have a close look at one tree overhanging the water. As I stood there a group of seven swallowtail kites materialized out of the western sky. They circled over the river briefly, scanning the swamps below, and then continued on out of sight.

From the Yellow River we moved north to the Blackwater River through Blackwater River State Forest. The river runs southwest across gently rolling topography to Blackwater Bay near Milton. The river and the 210,000-acre Blackwater River State Forest form a linchpin in what amounts to the largest remaining longleaf pine ecosystem in the world, connecting Eglin Air Force Base to Conecuh National Forest over the Alabama border.

The longleaf pine ecosystem once encompassed most of the southeastern coastal plain of the North American continent, stretching from southeastern Virginia to northern Florida to eastern Texas. The development and conversion of 97 percent of longleaf-dominated habitats is a threat to the survival of a host of Florida species. In northwest Florida there are private landowners working with conservation groups on large-scale restoration projects with potential to strengthen the connections between existing conservation lands, and to regrow parts of the once-vast longleaf forest, which now exists in isolated remnants.

We were invited to tour a timberland conservation project spanning a five-county area in both Florida and Alabama. The project is seeking a conservation easement through Florida Forever, the state's well-regarded but oft-underfunded conservation program. The longleaf restoration project has newfound hope with the recent passage by Florida voters of Amendment 1, the land and water conservation amendment.

As we head for our rendezvous with the Perdido River and lean toward the completion of this long expedition, I'm moved by the thought of the decades of work that went into conserving what's already here. Each of the hundreds of places we've touched has a history and a link to the lives of the people who know it or worked toward its protection. This thought, and the desire that future generations, our own children among them, will be able to enjoy the fruits of this labor will drive the continuation of our work beyond this journey.

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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