The Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative passed unanimously by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis is an essential step forward in the efforts to protect Florida’s green infrastructure needed for a sustainable, resilient and economically vital future.
Green infrastructure includes the natural and rural lands that support our wildlife, provide clean water, protect us from storms and floods, and support Florida’s important natural resource-based economy, including world-class, recreational opportunities.
Florida continues to struggle with a pace of human population growth — a net gain of over 300,000 per year — and rapid development that destroys forests, wetlands, prairies and agricultural land. A majority of Floridians recognize the importance of efforts to ensure that our most important natural areas, green spaces and agricultural lands are protected before they are lost to development.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative is a vital opportunity to make this happen, to guide Florida’s future to safeguard our remaining natural assets and green infrastructure before it is too late. The Florida Wildlife Corridor embraces the science-driven strategy that effective protection of native wildlife, water resources and other ecosystem services is absolutely dependent on maintaining large natural and rural landscapes with functional ecological connections weaving them together into one system.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor recognizes that, based on current land uses and conservation priority areas identified with sound science and high-quality geographic data, Florida still has the opportunity to protect a set of ecologically connected landscapes from the Everglades National Park in South Florida north to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida-Georgia border and west to the tip of the Florida panhandle.
Florida has been a leader in wildlife corridor science and conservation since the late 1980s, which started with seminal work by Larry Harris and Reed Noss at the University of Florida to promote the identification, design and protection of wildlife corridors and other areas important for ecological connectivity.
This legislation is based on decades of collaborative research and planning by the University of Florida with state entities, which led to the identification of a statewide greenways system and, ultimately, to development of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network now administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
With the adoption of this initiative, the Legislature recognizes the Florida Ecological Greenways Network as the foundation of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and makes its protection a priority. The Florida Legislature has recommended re-invigorated land protection programs, creation of new incentives programs and a commitment to the protection of sustainable agriculture. The Legislature also provided $400 million in funding in this year’s state budget to spur the protection of some of the most critical lands within the corridor.
The next steps are extremely important. There are approximately 8 million acres within the Florida Wildlife Corridor that have yet to be protected. The Florida Legislature and the governor need to recommit Florida to a decades-long conservation land protection program that is amply funded. This has been done in the past.
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Florida raised at least $300 million a year from 1990 through 2008 to fund the extremely successful Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever programs. Florida Forever still exists and has accomplished important land protection goals since 2008, but with significantly less funding than in the past. And Florida Forever needs help pursuing existing and future opportunities to protect land in the corridor, including funding the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, incentives to protect habitat and restore watersheds and federal land conservation funding.
To protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor before time runs out, Florida will need to provide annual funding for land conservation at least equal to the annual funding level from 1990 to 2008. We can accomplish this goal by working together for a sustainable, healthy and vibrant future for our state.
Thomas Hoctor is a research associate professor and director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Design, Construction & Planning at the University of Florida. He has worked on the Florida Ecological Greenways Network and the Florida Wildlife Corridor projects for the past three decades.