1. Opinion

Florida must protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor as it plans new toll roads | Carlton Ward Jr.

Florida’s nearly 10 million acres of treasured public land is stitched together by roughly six million privately held acres that are crucial for conservation. But they’re at risk of being lost to development.

This Tuesday, 200 leaders from around the state will gather at the Tampa Convention Center to begin designing the future of wild Florida. That’s not the stated purpose of the meeting, but it could be the effect. In reality, people are gathering to start planning three toll roads, but a lot more is at stake.

I remember taking part in a planning exercise at the same convention center in 2006. Reality Check Tampa Bay brought together 300 community leaders to envision infrastructure for a projected doubling of Tampa Bay’s population. We divided into teams around table-sized maps. Each team was given yellow and red Legos to represent new residential and commercial development and yellow and red ribbon to represent roadways and public transit. I raised my hand and asked whether there were any green Legos or ribbons that could represent new conservation areas and wildlife corridors. The organizers actually had green dots for planning green space ­— but had forgotten to pass them out.

I was baffled that the most fundamental and necessary infrastructure — green infrastructure — was so easily left out of the planning process. But once the Reality Check organizers passed out the green dots, the diverse group of people at my table all saw logic of first laying down green across the map to protect land and water corridors, and then developing our buildings and roads around connected networks of green.

Thirteen years later, as Florida’s development plans surge forward, the green dots are once again at risk of being forgotten. So I’m raising my hand again. What if we were to give the road planning task forces some stacks of green dots — the option of first protecting a statewide network of connected green space, and then developing potential new roads and developments around it? I bet most people would choose this strategy.

Encroaching development

This photo shows a new housing complex next to toll road SR-429 near Orlando. The environmental impacts of new highways can be partially mitigated with measures such as wildlife underpasses and fencing to keep animals off of roads. But damages by roads often go far beyond their physical footprints. Florida’s population is currently growing by nearly 1,000 people per day, and sprawling development patterns are consuming more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat per year. Population and development studies have projected that 5 million acres and most of the missing links in the Florida Wildlife Corridor will be lost in the next 50 years unless major investments in land conservation help steer development closer to existing urban cores. [ CARLTON WARD JR. | by Carlton Ward Jr. ]

I appreciate Senate President Bill Galvano’s recent column in the Tampa Bay Times stating that the toll road study areas “contain significant land designated as ‘critical wildlife corridor opportunity areas.’” And that his view is the toll road program “can use its broad scope of authority to pursue options to acquire land that would serve to both protect wildlife corridors and improve coastal resiliency efforts.” This type of thinking is a big step in the right direction.

Indeed, while the new toll road corridors are being considered, I would like planners and all Floridians to please be mindful of another statewide corridor network — the Florida Wildlife Corridor — a connected network of land and water that supports us all while providing habitat for iconic wildlife such as the Florida panther and Florida black bear. I have walked and paddled most of this corridor and can bear witness to the fragile network of life-sustaining lands and waters that is largely hidden in plain sight but right now needs everyone’s attention to be saved.

The state already has an official blueprint for protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor, as a priority subset of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network. I hadn’t heard of this greenways network either until I started paying attention in 2006, when the last controversial toll road – the Heartland Expressway was being proposed. In all the associated media, there was ample discussion of corridors: transportation corridors, development corridors, hurricane evacuation corridors, but no mention of wildlife corridors.

That inspired me and a group of conservationists to name the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and then later lead three separate expeditions totaling more than 2,000 miles through its length and width. We invited politicians and media to join us, published books and films, and partnered with dozens of Florida conservation organizations to show the world the network of life-sustaining lands and waters that we need to keep connected and whole.

Public good, privately held

If toll road planners are serious about protecting wildlife corridors, they will use the process to fund large-scale conservation easements on working lands like this. Without large scale investments in land conservation, new roads will lead to sprawling developments that will displace Florida agriculture and break apart the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Blackbeard’s Ranch in southwest Florida protects critical wildlife habitat and headwaters of the Myakka River. Cattle ranches make up nearly one sixth of Florida, and well-managed ranches provide wildlife habitat rivaling parks and preserves. Compared to the southern Everglades, where the majority of panther habitat is on vast public lands, most of the panther habitat in the Northern Everglades is currently private land. Like most working lands in Florida, these ranches are threatened by development. Conservation easements provide solutions that can compensate landowners for their land’s development value as an efficient way to ensure that land will never be converted. Right now there are landowners representing more than one million acres of priority wildlife corridor habitat who are stuck on waiting lists seeking conservation easements as alternatives to development. Demand for easements far outweighs supply because programs such as Florida Forever have been drastically underfunded over the past 10 years. [ Carlton Ward Jr / National Geographic Image Collection ]

Protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor should be a top priority in the process of planning any new road corridors, and with emphasis on the fact that the Florida Wildlife Corridor’s protection is only 60 percent complete. The nearly 10 million acres of treasured public land in Florida is held together by approximately six million acres of private lands – mostly working forests, ranches and farms – that are crucial for conservation but all at risk of being lost to development, that is if we don’t start planning wildlife corridors and development corridors at the same time.

The thing I appreciate most about the proposed toll roads is that leaders are planning for the future. Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson, in his recent column for the Tampa Bay Times, said that Florida’s population is expected to grow by 4.5 million people to reach 26 million by 2030. I agree with these projections, which are consistent with Florida 2070, a study published by the Florida Department of Agriculture, University of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida, predicting that the state’s population will nearly double to 35 million by 2070.

What’s missing from the case for toll roads, but is made clear in the Florida 2070 report, are the effects of Florida’s expanding population on our natural resources. Based on our current development patterns, with every three million new residents that move to Florida, one million acres of natural habitat is lost. If Florida’s population grows as Wilson and Florida 2070 have predicted, and the development of new roads and housing continues according to current trends, that growth will destroy 5 million acres of high priority wildlife habitat – or nearly all of the missing links in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

A tight squeeze for wildlife

When mitigating the impacts of road and protecting wetlands, planners need to think on much bigger scales. This narrow wildlife corridor is the floodplain of Reedy Creek in the headwaters of the Everglades near Orlando and one of the most pinched off points in the entire Florida Wildlife Corridor. The 2018 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition traveled this route while making the film The Last Green Thread. Development from the town of Poinciana has squeezed fragile connection up to the edge of the wetland, which can be filled with water for more than half the year. Future wildlife corridors should be at least a mile wide, preferably much wider, to protect robust landscape linkages that are functional in all seasons. [ National Geographic Image Collection ]

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Florida Wildlife Corridor or its missing links, let’s consider the consequences of developing five million acres of the corridor. Foremost, the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor will be broken, and most of our public conservation lands, including Florida’s award-winning network of state parks, will be surrounded on all sides by development. Natural processes like fire will no longer have space to manage lands without also threatening houses. Conflicts between people and wildlife will rise. The Everglades and the four million acres of connected public lands in South Florida will be cut off from the Everglades Headwaters near Orlando and the rest of the state and country beyond.

Our state animal, the endangered Florida panther, will lose the forests, ranches and farms in that provide its the physical path to recovery. Another wide ranging species, the Florida black bear, will become increasingly isolated. Its seven sub populations spread between Pensacola and Naples will lose connections to one another, leading to inbreeding and local extinctions.

The sources of Florida’s fresh water will be significantly degraded, including the Everglades, St. Johns River, Green Swamp, Peace River and Suwannee River, all which originate within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and provide drinking water to more than three quarters of Florida’s population.

The black bear

Black bears once lived in every Florida county. But past hunting and habitat loss have reduced them to seven increasingly isolated subpopulations spread throughout the state. From the pine forests near Pensacola to the cypress swamps near Naples, protecting and restoring the Florida Wildlife Corridor could reconnect all of Florida’s bear populations to prevent inbreeding and local extinction, and also prepare territory for the Florida panther’s northward recovery. [ National Geographic Image Collection ]

Florida agriculture, which provides food for our nation and the world, protects critical wildlife habitat and serves as a robust and sustainable sector of Florida’s economy, will be displaced to the verge of nonexistence.

These might sound like drastic predictions for potential losses associated with three new toll roads. But continued erosion and collapse of Florida’s ecosystems is exactly what’s at stake. We’re already losing 100,000 acres of habitat each a year to development. The toll roads threaten to accelerate that process. Or if we seize this moment to take an honest look at our future, maybe the toll roads can steer us in another direction.

Graphic of Florida Wildlife Corridors. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

If you read the Florida 2070 report, there is a better option that allows Florida to develop in balance with the green infrastructure that supports us all. As opposed to the Trend 2070, where sprawling development destroys 5 million acres of habitat in the next 50 years, Alternative 2070 benefits from increased investment in land conservation that protects the missing links in the Florida Wildlife Corridor, while steering new development away from the most sensitive lands and closer to our existing urban cores.

Here’s my proposal for the future of Florida: First protect the missing links of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, then we can plan new road and development corridors around secure green corridors without accidentally undermining all of the conservation progress from the past fifty years.

A ranch, a development and a home for panthers

Elton Langford is a 13th-generation Florida rancher and foreman at Babcock Ranch. The culture of Florida ranchers is as endangered as the species that depend on their properties. Babcock Ranch is also the site of a 19,000-home new development on approximately 9,000 acres. But when the development project was approved, state funding helped permanently protect nearly 80,000 acres of contiguous wildlife habitat – the same place where a decade later the historic female in the other photo was able to set up her home range. With careful planning, new developments should proportionally protect just as much land to help secure large connected pieces of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Just like at Babcock Ranch, significant public investment will be required to make conservation and development projects viable. [ Carlton Ward Jr / National Geographic Image Collection ]

Or if public consensus calls for starting to develop new toll roads now, then at least make a plan to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor at the same time. If we’re going to consider investing in the toll roads that Wilson called “the most important roadway effort undertaken in Florida since the Florida Turnpike," we need to also commit to the largest new investment in land conservation since Preservation 2000.

Let’s consider how we could achieve both conservation and development. To balance the 100,000 acres lost each year to development, we also need 100,000 acres of new conservation. On the timeline of the toll roads, that means we need a minimum of one million acres of new land conservation by 2030.

I see that as an exciting opportunity. Faced with the climate crises and rapid extinction of species, my colleagues at the National Geographic Society and partnering organizations are working with global leaders towards a new framework of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030, on the way to protecting half of Earth by 2050. Right now only 15 percent of Earth’s lands are protected, but in Florida that number is nearly 27 percent. By protecting an additional one million acres, we can reach 30 percent by 2030 and set an inspiring precedent for what can be achieved for conservation even in such a rapidly developing state.

The Florida panther

The Florida panther is at a crossroads. A single panther’s home range can be 200 square miles, making a connected network of conservation lands essential for survival. The panther in this photo is the first female of her species documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973 – a huge milestone because it means the breeding population is starting to expand beyond its recent isolation at the southern tip of Florida. The panther is doing its part. Now it’s up to us. Can we protect enough of the ranches, forests and groves for the panther to recover into its historic range in the Northern Everglades, while at the same time new roads and developments are vying for this same region? [ National Geographic Society ]

Most of Florida’s land protection priorities can be achieved by conservation easements, whereby landowners are paid to strip the development rights off of their land and then can continue to manage the land in perpetuity. To fund conservation easements on 100,000 acres annually could cost approximately $500 million. Considering inflation, that is substantially less than the $300 million per year Republican leadership committed in 1990 to Preservation 2000. For additional perspective, $500 million for land conservation is just five percent of the annual $10 billion budget from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Perhaps we make protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor part of the toll road task force objectives? We’re already bringing regional leaders together over the next year to plan the future of Florida corridors. If their maps show the Florida Wildlife Corridor and we hand them a stack of green dots, I predict logic will lead them to a shared vision for our future.

Let’s at least weigh the idea and let the public decide. Do we want to intentionally save the Florida Wildlife Corridor or let it be destroyed by road corridors and future development? Is there a way for road infrastructure planning to help secure the green infrastructure that all Floridians and visitors need most of all?

After full consideration, if Florida lawmakers indeed go through with spending $20 billion on new toll roads over the next 10 years, can they ensure us that the the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor is substantially protected at the same time?

Carlton Ward Jr. cools off in the swamp after servicing a camera trap at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. [ VERONICA RUNGE | by Veronica Runge ]

Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic photographer. His current work focuses on the story of the Florida panther to inspire appreciation and protection of the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor and is supported by the National Geographic Society. See more of his work at and on Instagram @CarltonWard. Learn more about the Florida Wildlife Corridor at