Editor’s note: Last month, National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr., conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and wildlife biologist Joe Guthrie set out on another expedition to prove the viability of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a connected but still endangered network of land and water to provide habitat for iconic wildlife such as the Florida panther and Florida black bear. Their earlier expeditions in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018 totaled more than 2,000 miles. This recent weeklong expedition navigated only 60 miles but was urgent because it explored a critical bottleneck on U.S. 27, site of a proposed wildlife crossing, and traversed the heart of the controversial toll-road study region for the Southwest-Central Florida connector. This is the story of what they have learned.
Scurrying across the four lanes of U.S. 27 north of Sebring marked the halfway point of our October 2019 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Last year we witnessed suburban sprawl rapidly converting groves and pastures to rooftops along U.S. 27 near Orlando, threatening to permanently fracture what remains of the Florida Wildlife Corridor there. This busy highway is a growing divide for the Florida Wildlife Corridor -- the statewide network of public preserves and private farms and ranches we are working to keep connected. This year we crossed the same highway 50 miles to the south, where the green swath of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is nearly three miles wide on each side of the road, signifying that there is still time to save the Corridor here, aided by a strong human network of scientists and land managers committed to restoring and protecting it.
The first half of our journey was borne along on horseback by ranchers whose lands form important linkages leading up to the highway crossing. As we moved into the second phase of the trek we traveled mostly on existing reserves, mostly on foot. But we were again helped along by a network of people, the land stewards and scientists who are working to study and save as much of the fragmented Lake Wales Ridge landscape as possible.
After the big road crossing, we made camp on a sandy patch, nestled near one of the shallow lakes that dot the ridge. An afternoon sunshower swept over us, and we rejoiced as the sweat and sand was washed from our clothes. Even against the nearby whine of traffic on U.S. 27, we felt comfort knowing a new conservation easement ensured the property on which we stood would not be developed. A sense of relief settled over us for the evening.
Day 4: Lake Livingston
Shaking the fine white pleistocene sands from our tents, we prepared to break camp. Day 4 would take us on a wide arc around Lake Livingston, a private conservation bank. We were on sand skink habitat. These skinks are rarely observed directly, but their presence is betrayed by the curvy wake they create as they “swim” just beneath the surface of the loose sand. Our hike wove through oak hammocks, pastures and clusters of pines whose canopy afforded a patch of shade for respite beside a cattle pond. In the late afternoon, rounding the top of the lake, we picked a path through a marsh alive with wading birds. The vocalizations of Great Egrets, Tri-colored Herons and White Ibis could be heard long after we lost sight of them, exiting the marsh to our destination, a scenic clump of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the perfect place for a camp.
With just over half of our 60-mile trek behind us, we left trail for the evening to hear from a dozen scientists and land managers who study and steward the biological riches of the Lake Wales Ridge via a “restoration round-table” event hosted at the Ridge Audubon Center in Babson Park. The presentations underscore an impressive collaboration and inspirational progress by local conservation heroes. The Ridge which we traveled for the entirety of the second half of the trek is a global hot spot for biodiversity, harboring numerous endemic species found nowhere else in the world. It also has one of the highest concentrations of imperiled species in the United States, with 16 listed animal species and 35 listed plant species who rely on this ancient dune for survival.
Day 5: Lake Wales Ridge State Forest - Arbuckle Tract
Our sunrise departure from Lake Livingston took us on a short walk across a county road to the western trailhead of Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. Here we met up with volunteers and staff from the Ridge Rangers and the Florida Trail Association who led us on a beautifully maintained section of trail -- part of a statewide trail system that includes includes the Florida National Scenic Trail, which stretches 1,300 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve south of Naples to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. We have hiked hundreds of miles of these trails during past expeditions. The section through the Arbuckle tract of Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is among the most beautiful. The use of prescribed fire by the Florida Forest Service has drastically improved and restored the pine forests there. Palmetto, wiregrass and rare cutthroat grass ground cover textured the panoramic views. Blazingstar, dayflower and other fall-blooming wildflowers punctuated the trail’s edge. Our Florida Forest Service hosts joined us for lunch by Lake Godwin and treated us to a presentation on the land management issues facing the region.
In the afternoon, progressing further into the forest, we arrived at the western edge of Lake Arbuckle. After a short search we found an opening amidst the massive moss-laden cypress that hugged the shore, one we hoped would accommodate a coveted breeze off the lake to reach our sweltering tents. Low flying aircraft maneuvered over the far bank. We watched a Cobra attack helicopter make a steep bank above the cypress trees before turning back to the east. More than 100,000 acres of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is preserved by the joint training facility of Avon Park Air Force Range, and the Department of Defense has been funding conservation easements on adjacent cattle ranches to buffer the base from encroaching development.
Day 6: Avon Park Air Force Range, Blue Jordan Swamp and Walk-in-the-Water tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.
Each day’s route became more of a struggle as we neared the end of the trek. Day 6 would see the wildest and most difficult miles of the expedition. Shortly after exiting the Arbuckle State Forest, another road and across a corner of the Avon Park Air Force Range we were confronted with a strand of bay forest called Blue Jordan Swamp. We had no trail to follow, just a theoretical line on our GPS. The swamp was beautiful. Wading into the dark tannic waters offered the path of least resistance in places. The afternoon sun splashed through curtains of lime green strap ferns and air plants growing on the bay trees. On the west side of the Blue Jordan Swamp, as we attempted to break out onto a patch of dry scrub where we could follow our route down a series of firebreaks, we were instead met by a nearly impenetrable morass of grape vines and thorny greenbriar.
With no alternative path to the uplands, we dove straight ahead into the green beast, crawling under, over and through for hundreds of meters. The mass of vines was heavy enough in places to hold us suspended in the air, allowing for a lurching, falling-forward kind of progress, until sweating and cursing we would fall back into its depths. When we finally emerged from the swamp, up the steepest slope we’d yet encountered we surveyed the landscape. It’s quite possible many years will pass before another group of people would intentionally retrace our steps across this challenging stretch of the corridor. The next few hours would bring a downpour, a road crossing and a hike in the dark to our final night of camping at the Wood Duck Overlook on the Walk-in-the-Water tract.
Day 7: Lake Wales Ridge State Forest - Walk in the Water Tract and Tiger Creek Preserve
Scattered clouds and a dew drenched sunrise welcomed the final day of the expedition. A few more miles navigating rolling hills, up the “Mountain Trail” through the dunetop in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest and we arrived at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve -- a crown jewel in the rare Lake Wales Ridge scrub. We toured the property and met up with the legendary former director “Sticky” Steve Morrison, who enchanted us with tales of his adventures and guided us down a steep ravine for a brilliant finale -- a paddle on Tiger Creek.
Following the water at the foot of Florida’s sand mountain, we sensed we’d found a meaningful endpoint for the Ranch to Ridge Expedition. Here Florida’s sandy spine felt wholly wild and remote.
The relict sand dunes form a natural water tower, a lasting, free public service provided to millions of Floridians. Rainwater on the Ridge is quickly absorbed into a vertical sand filter which scrubs the surface impurities as it filters down, resulting in a slow delivery to the flat plains beyond, and ultimately to the coast. Here at the vertical edge of the Everglades watershed, we paddle and give thanks for nature’s treasures, and for the people who help ensure they persist.
After a ceremonial swim we climbed up the steep banks to start back toward our normal lives. Re-entry from the trek can be bittersweet, but is buffered for us by a celebratory gathering at Bok Tower, and a chance to peer out across the landscape we’ve just traveled through.
Reasons for Hope
We picked the landscape for this expedition nearly a year ago based on guidance from our conservation partners. The “200 ancient scrub islands” that form the Lake Wales Ridge have made it a global hot spot for biodiversity. Scattered among the ancient sandy dunes is one of the United States’ highest concentrations of imperiled species, many of which are endemics, lifeforms that exist nowhere else on Earth. This irreplaceable ecological richness motivated Floridians to spend millions of dollars to acquire conservation lands held in a public trust to benefit our state. A central goal of our expedition has been to show how these great conservation hubs, such as Highlands Hammock State Park, the Avon Park Air Force Range and The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve are linked to one another by numerous unprotected ranchlands and groves. The health and viability of these landmark conservation properties depend on these vital links.
After completing our expedition through the Lake Wales Ridge, we see many signs of hope for saving the Florida Wildlife Corridor here. Unlike the ecological cul-de-sac that is quickly forming farther north near Orlando, there is still an ancient wildlife highway traversing the lands we crossed, conducting panthers and black bears, bobcats, river otters and countless other animals, providing much needed habitat and genetic diversity. This habitat network is largely hidden from the truck traffic and people who ply U.S. 27 or its crossroads, but we can now bear witness to its existence and importance.
Photographer William Freund from the fStop Foundation set up a camera trap beside a small box culvert running beneath all 4 lanes of U.S. 27 at the point we crossed over. There is no wing fencing, just a narrow dark tunnel under the road. In the weeks since the expedition, his camera captured photographs of otters, raccoons, possums, bobcats and a rare spotted skunk using the culvert, crossing safely beneath traffic. We learned that the Florida Department of Transportation has proposed installing a larger scale wildlife underpass at that same location complete with fencing sometime in the next ten years when they widen the highway to six lanes -- a compelling example of how planning for wildlife movement and human transportation can work together.
Floridians have a choice to make. The Florida 2070 report projects that 5 million acres of rural and natural lands -- nearly all of the missing links in the Florida Wildlife Corridor -- will be lost to sprawling development if our growth pattern isn’t altered. But it can be altered. If we prioritize the Corridor, there is still room for growth. The green infrastructure of the Florida Wildlife Corridor can be protected by working with farmers and ranchers who are seeking alternatives to development, and by expanding public lands where that makes sense. That means lawmakers must more fully fund land protection programs including Florida Forever and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. This is especially apparent in the wildlife corridor west of U.S. 27, where we found broad landowner support for these programs, yet another reason for hope.
The people we met during our journey are conservation heroes. Farmers, ranchers, scientists, public land managers, private land trusts, military officers, hunters, hikers and teams of volunteers all agree that this wildlife corridor needs to be protected. That gives us great confidence to press forward with our message to lawmakers in Tallahassee and the people of Florida. There is a network of land and people holding wild Florida together in the face of relentless pressures. Now it is our responsibility to seize this moment in time to empower the work local conservationists are doing for wildlife, water and all Floridians.
By the Numbers:
- Number of Days - 7
- Miles traversed - 60+ (28 mi on horseback, 32 mi walking and ¼ mi on paddleboards)
- Roads crossed - 11
- Property ownerships crossed - 15 (1 State Park, 2 State Forests, 3 Preserves, 9 private properties)
- Partners engaged - 68
- Counties spanned - 3 (Highlands, Hardee, Polk)
- Locks cut - 1. Locks replaced - 1
- Pounds of cheese consumed - 4
- Cameras lost - 3. Cameras recovered - 3
- Boots blown out - 1