“No man is an island,” wrote poet John Donne about humankind’s need for interconnectedness and community. Likewise, natural communities require connectivity to thrive as part of a larger whole. The 2021 Florida Wildlife Corridor Act supported this concept to the tune of $300 million dedicated to protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor is an interconnected network of habitat encompassing 18 million acres of land stretching the length of Florida from the Everglades up to Georgia and Alabama. About 10 million acres of that network has already been protected, including such natural gems as Everglades National Park, our three national forests, numerous state parks and many other natural areas. The remaining 8 million acres compose the “connective tissue,” where additional lands must be protected to prevent our preserved natural areas from being reduced to islands of green enmeshed within a sea of development.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act was enacted in recognition of the urgent need to protect these connections before our ballooning population growth and breakneck pace of development close the door on the remaining opportunities to maintain connectivity once and for all. The state doubled down on its level of commitment to seeing these corridor lands protected by allocating an additional $300 million to the effort during the 2022 legislative session.
One important linkage in the corridor — the Ocala to Osceola, or “O2O” — extends nearly 100 miles from the Ocala National Forest at the southern end to Osceola National Forest in the north. Unfortunately, nearly the entire width of the O2O has been severed at its southern end by the Rodman Reservoir, an artificial pool created by the Kirkpatrick Dam.
One simple action — restoring the Ocklawaha River by breaching the dam and draining the reservoir — would repair this glaring gap in the O2O and facilitate free movement of some of Florida’s most cherished wildlife species and native plant communities. And unlike most of the unprotected gaps in the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which will require the protection of additional lands, this break in the O2O is comprised of lands that are already protected through public ownership, much of it as part of the Ocala National Forest.
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Closing the gap in the O2O by restoring the Ocklawaha will allow the corridor to serve as a habitat thoroughfare for such wide-ranging species as the Florida black bear, critically endangered Florida panther and many other less conspicuous species. All species require the ability to move or migrate in response to various stressors — like loss of habitat, a changing climate or the need to find a mate. Even plants, though seemingly fixed in space by their roots, are subject to the same fundamental principles of biology — to survive, an organism must find habitat that meets all basic needs, including the ability to move somewhere else if necessary.
The Rodman Reservoir represents a nearly impenetrable barrier to movement by most plant and animal species, and the O2O will never realize its full potential as a truly functional wildlife corridor until that barrier is removed. The Kirkpatrick Dam — a relic of the 1960s Cross Florida Barge Canal boondoggle — impounded the Ocklawaha River and flooded 7,500 acres of naturally forested floodplain.
It also inundated at least 20 springs, including Marion Blue Spring, which was once a popular recreation destination. Access by boats is often precluded by dense growths of nonnative aquatic vegetation. Significant taxpayer funds are spent annually to spray the weeds with herbicide in a vain attempt to maintain navigability.
A common-sense solution to heal this damaged ecosystem is readily available: breaching the Kirkpatrick Dam at the Ocklawaha’s natural channel. In addition, scientists agree that restoring the Ocklawaha would give aquatic species like the Florida manatee unimpeded movement throughout the warm water habitat in the Ocklawaha’s drowned springs, as well as habitat in the Silver River and Silver Springs.
Migratory fish species like the striped bass, American shad and endangered Atlantic sturgeon would be able to reclaim habitat from which they were evicted following construction of the dam. And of course, breaching the dam would drain the Rodman Reservoir, thereby restoring upland and wetland habitat connectivity at the southern end of the O2O while allowing 7,500 acres of floodplain forest and 20 drowned springs to regenerate. Restoration would provide an additional 150 million gallons per day of freshwater flow to the St. Johns River and estuary, supporting ecosystems and wildlife, especially critically important seagrass habitats.
A restored Ocklawaha would also enhance recreational opportunities for people who love the outdoors. Thousands of acres of restored habitat for white-tailed deer and wild turkeys would expand hunting opportunities, and anglers would benefit from a greater variety of fish. Up to 15 miles of scenic riverine splendor would be restored for enjoyment by paddlers.
The reemergence of crystal-clear spring run streams like Indian Creek, fed historically by the outflow from Marion Blue Spring, would bear witness to the myriad benefits of Ocklawaha restoration. Multiple studies undertaken by University of Florida economists project significant economic benefit to the region from the increase in nature-based recreation opportunities.
Restoration can’t wait. For the sake of animals, plants and people, it’s time to heal the Florida Wildlife Corridor by restoring the Ocklawaha River.
Eugene Kelly is policy and legislation chair of the Florida Native Plant Society. Elizabeth Fleming is senior Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. Sarah Gledhill is vice president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. All three are active participants in the Free the Ocklawaha River Coalition.