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  1. Opinion

At the Interstate 4 chokepoint, the path ahead for creating a Florida Wildlife Corridor is narrow indeed

If we were a black bear or a Florida panther, how could we cross Interstate 4? Our three-member expedition team spent a week testing such a path to make sure this imperiled stretch of the Florida Wildlife Corridor can still be saved and to discover the obstacles in the way.

We planned to explore habitat connections from the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the Green Swamp but didn't know what to expect. Information was hard to come by and scouting reports were limited.

We quickly abandoned stand-up paddle boarding upstream of Lake Russell, where Reedy Creek was dry, so we spent the better part of the week on foot, slogging through the swamp at a turtle's pace. After five days of grueling hiking, we were disheartened to discover that we had walked 29 miles but had actually gone only 12.

Mostly our serpentine track was a slow slalom around thousands of cypress, sweetgums, tupelos and maples, tangles of grape vines, thorny greenbriars and blackberries plus a labyrinth of poison ivy. We saw two cottonmouths per day, on average.

There were times during our slog when the forest became wildly quiet around us, and the only sounds came from birds or the wind. During one of these moments mid-week, we imagined the forest extending unbroken for miles in every direction. In reality, the closest subdivisions were a mile to our west and two miles to our east. But at three miles across, this was the widest section of the corridor we would traverse. It felt different, and it was.

Tension with development was the recurring theme and one reason we chose this segment of the corridor to explore. On two previous expeditions we proved that it's still possible to link a network of the best remaining connected wild lands in the state — literally to give Florida wildlife room to roam — when we traveled 2,000 miles across the length of the state, through Florida's wildest lands and waters. But those journeys could inadvertently give the impression of a corridor already protected and secure.

The edges tell a far different story. Here at the outskirts of Orlando, one can watch the land disappearing, and along with it the last threads of natural land west of Orlando that keep the Everglades connected to the rest of America. At times in the first few days the corridor narrowed to only a quarter mile wide, and we could feel the squeeze of development. One day a strange voice called to us from the east, "outside lawn and garden, one-five, outside lawn and garden, one-five." It came from a Lowe's store just 150 yards away.

On Day 5, we paddled out of a gorgeous floodplain forest and beneath Interstate 4. The green ribbon of Reedy Creek that had become our refuge quickly gave way to the most dangerous highway in America. For the cars speeding above, the entire corridor flashes by in a few seconds. How many drivers roaring overhead were aware of these headwaters of the far distant Everglades?

Beneath I-4, we met up with panther biologist Jennifer Korn. She showed us a photo of a bobcat that had safely crossed beneath the highway the previous night, and a video of otters scurrying across the rocks, and told us about two different male Florida panthers that had been killed on I-4 within a quarter mile of Reedy Creek. It was easy to imagine that by adding a mile of fencing to funnel wildlife toward the creek, those panthers may have found safe passage like the bobcat. There are plans to add flat ledges to the sloped sides of the bridge span so wildlife can more easily walk beneath, elevated on a catwalk above water during the wet season.

Twenty paddle strokes north of I-4, our canoes slipped back beneath the trees lining the hidden headwaters. We left I-4 feeling hopeful about a future redesign of the bridge to improve permeability to wildlife, but concerned about where the next Florida panther might go once it reached the north side of the interstate.

The area between Four Corners and Championsgate is one of the fastest-developing in America. There and along U.S. 27 to the west one can see the final crop of tract homes popping up from the ground faster than the oranges are ripening on the few remaining groves. Just west of our I-4 crossing, the formerly connected forest is scraped bare, sprouting houses.

At midday on Day 6, we emerged upstream beyond the forested floodplain and into Disney's Palms Golf Course. We sought shade under a bridge where the cart path crossed the creek and retrieved a ball for a golfer whose shot had splashed short of the distant green. Here in the headwaters of the Everglades, Reedy Creek had become a water hazard, and an ecological cul de sac.

It's only seven miles from Reedy Lake to Lake Louisa State Park and the 500,000 acres of the Green Swamp beyond to the west. Yet we were unable to traverse a green path from Reedy Lake west toward the highlands of the Lake Wales Ridge, where its water originates. This chink in our transect occurs between two highways (U.S. 27 and the Western Beltway) that speed the conversion from agricultural to urban development.

From the sandhills near Lake Louisa we looked over a rolling countryside of pastures and forests, reflecting that there appears to be little effort to protect remaining connections between uplands to lowlands. It's possible that by combining agricultural easements and multi-county coordinated development designs that a minimally functional green corridor could be designated, restored where necessary, and protected between the upper reaches of Reedy Creek and the eastern edge of the Green Swamp.

Down from the ridge to the west, we rode bikes through a patchwork of rural lands in the greater Green Swamp, and in a few short hours covered 25 miles — nearly the sum total distance of our five hiking days combined. All told we covered 72 miles in seven days and completed a journey connecting the Everglades and the Green Swamp — Florida's two largest wetlands.

While fragile watershed connections still exist between the Everglades headwaters and the Green Swamp, and the impacts of I-4 should be lessened with the redesign of the bridge, the opportunity for a lasting connection to serve terrestrial wildlife could soon be lost.

The fate of this corridor depends on decisions Orange and Lake counties make between Reedy Creek from Disney property west to Lake Louisa. Currently there are no plans by either county to protect such a corridor, and if that doesn't change, its fate will be sealed in the next few years and the bottlenecks we passed through during our journey will become dead ends.

The opinion among our team is clear: Florida needs to invest $500 million each year in land conservation — just 5 percent of the state road budget — in order to keep pace with more than 100,000 acres of habitat lost to development annually. Otherwise, the Legislature's tradition of starving the state's conservation easement and land acquisition programs will undermine efforts to protect remaining critical gaps in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

As we look back on our brief time immersed in the forested strands linking the Everglades and the Green Swamp, it is our finding that the connection between these iconic Florida headwaters is incomplete, and at risk. As is the case with so many of the remaining unprotected gaps in the Florida Wildlife Corridor, the places we traveled must be protected to remain connected, and we should use the best available tools to see that it gets done.