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  1. Opinion

Perspective: A picturesque calendar of ranches shows why the state needs to preserve wild Florida

Laurent Lollis rides across Buck Island Ranch on his horse Francis during an early morning cattle drive. Archbold Biological Station manages the 10,500-acre ranch, which maintains more than 3,000 head of Brahman Cross cows and is home to more than 722 species of plants and animals. Six federally threatened or endangered species also make their home on the ranch. [Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.]
Published Dec. 30, 2017

These photographs may be the most important I've made in nearly 15 years focusing on Florida ranches. The reason is that all the properties featured are priorities for conservation that could be lost to development if the state of Florida doesn't take action to protect them. It was a great honor to visit these spectacular places and spend time with landowners and workers who are doing their part to save wild Florida. Now it's time for state lawmakers to do their part.

The 2018 calendar is dedicated to legendary rancher Alto "Bud" Adams, who died this year. Bud's passing has given me reason to reflect because he was the first person I visited in 2005 when I began working toward the first annual Florida Ranches Calendar. I had admired his book, A Florida Cattle Ranch, and heard of his reputation for environmental stewardship.

But it was spending a day with Bud and seeing the land through his eyes that shaped my life and career ever since. He treated me like family, shared his philosophy about caring for the land, water and wildlife, and welcomed me back to join him in telling the story of what Florida ranches mean to our state and world.

Throughout that year and in years to come, I would stay in a cypress cracker shack on the ranch, meet the cowboys at the horse barn before dawn, and then follow them through fog-laden pastures winding among palm hammocks to gather brown Braford cattle that belonged to that place and looked like they had been grazing the same range for a thousand years.

It always felt epic and timeless, like the Backus painting that hung over my parents' mantle, or the dozen such paintings that colored the walls of Bud's home, many of them inspired by the Adams Ranch itself.

Bud's ultimate wish was for his land to be preserved in reality, not just in paintings and photographs. Bud has passed that torch, and the legacy of the land now rests in the hands of his family, the politicians in Tallahassee — and us. The Adams Ranch, like every other ranch featured in this year's calendar, is at risk of being lost to development if lawmakers don't make major investments in conservation programs like the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) and Florida Forever.

When the first Florida Ranches Calendar was published in 2006, there were only 16 million people in Florida. When Bud Adams was born, there were fewer than 2 million. Today there are nearly 21 million and that number is projected to reach 35 million by 2070. To accommodate that influx of people (currently 1,000 per day) we will lose 5 million acres of natural and agricultural land — and most of the ranches in our state — if we don't get serious about investing in land conservation.

We need to follow the leadership of Jim Strickland and Lefty Durando, who founded the Florida Conservation Group — landowners representing more than a million acres of Florida who are seeking conservation as an alternative to development. Empowering these ranchers with conservation programs is the most effective and efficient way we can steer development away from environmentally sensitive lands.

In 2014, 75 percent of Florida voters asked for one-third of real estate transaction taxes to be invested in land conservation. Based on the 2017 state budget, that would be nearly $800 million for land conservation annually. But last year lawmakers budgeted just $10 million. Meanwhile, another 100,000 acres were lost to development.

At stake is the future of Florida ranching, the restoration of the Everglades and the survival of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, 16 million acres of public and private lands that provide wildlife habitat stretching from the Everglades to Georgia and Alabama. They all depend on one thing — making an immediate and substantial public investment in land conservation. We spend $10 billion annually on our state transportation budget. I believe $500 million, or 5 percent of our roads budget, should be our baseline for land conservation. This relatively modest investment in green infrastructure would yield tremendous dividends.

Senate Bill 370, with a proposed $100 million for Florida Forever, is a step in the right direction. And Gov. Rick Scott's proposal for a similar amount suggests that we could see measurable progress in land protection in 2018.

But even if all of these funds were invested in cost-efficient conservation easements at $2,000 per acre, for example, only 50,000 acres would be protected, compared to the trend of 100,000 lost to development. We need to accelerate the rate of conservation by four times what is proposed to reverse that ratio of loss and achieve a sustainable balance.

The first Florida Ranches Calendar in 2006 featured six of my photographs of ranchers alongside six of Bud Adams' photographs of landscapes and wildlife, together representing the threatened culture and nature of the Florida ranch. The 2018 Florida Ranches Calendar includes 11 more ranches, which themselves represent more than a hundred other ranches on the RFLPP and Florida Forever conservation lists. I believe it is time we honor Bud Adams' legacy and do what it necessary to conserve Florida ranches and save Florida.

Carlton Ward Jr. is an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic Explorer focused on understanding and protecting wild Florida. He has trekked 2,000 miles through Florida's wildest areas to raise visibility for the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. His photographs are available through CarltonWard.com and his gallery in Tampa. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @CarltonWard. The 2018 calendar is available at floridaranchescalendar.com/.

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