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Monday, Jul 16, 2018
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Column: We can still save wild Florida, but time for panthers, black bears and us is running out

When we dipped our paddles into Florida Bay at the mangrove fringe of Everglades National Park and took the first strokes of the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, I’m not sure I fully understood the scope of the challenge we were facing. Six years and three expeditions later, we are ultimately fighting to keep the Everglades connected to the rest of North America as an onslaught of development narrows that prospect with each passing year.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor is a vision to protect a connected statewide network of conservation lands for the benefit of people and wildlife. As currently defined, the corridor is 15.8 million acres (nearly one third of the state), of which 9.5 million acres are already protected and 6.3 million acres do not have conservation status. The unprotected land is what we are fighting for. This corridor opportunity area consists mostly of private agricultural lands — cattle ranches, timberlands, groves and farms — a tapestry of habitats that functionally connect existing public lands but are all in the crosshairs of development.

The Florida 2070 study by 1000 Friends of Florida, the University of Florida and the Florida Department of Agriculture projects that 5 million acres of habitat — most of the missing links in the corridor — will be lost by 2070 to accommodate 35 million Floridians (up from 21 million today) if sprawling suburban growth is allowed to continue on its current trend.

The alternative is investing in large-scale land protection now through conservation easements and selective public acquisitions in order to save the corridor, preserve a future for agriculture, protect the Everglades and other water resources and steer development away from our most sensitive lands while concentrating growth closer to existing urban cores.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor project was inspired by black bear research conducted in Highlands County by Joe Guthrie, his professor Dave Maehr and their colleagues. They were focused on a small subpopulation of black bears living almost entirely on private cattle ranches and using GPS collars to reveal their movements. One bear traveled 500 miles in two months, connecting Babcock Ranch near Fort Myers up the Kissimmee River Valley to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes near Disney World, showing that the fabric of public and private lands in the Northern Everglades was functioning as one connected whole.

Two years before, I had been working with the Smithsonian in Central Africa, documenting biological riches that the international community wanted to save. During one trip back to Florida, I saw a new subdivision that had been native rangeland just months before, motivating me to refocus my career on Florida’s wild heartland that was every bit as threatened as the rainforests of the Congo.

That journey led me to the stories of Florida’s ranchlands and black bears, and introduced me to University of Florida professor Tom Hoctor, whose research on wildlife corridors became the blueprint for our cause. Fellow conservationists from the Nature Conservancy, Audubon of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Trust for Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and several landowners joined us in founding the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign on Earth Day 2010.

To make the corridor idea more real, Guthrie, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and I, along with filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, set out set out on a 100-day, 1,000-mile expedition in 2012 tracing the best remaining natural path from Everglades National Park to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia, showing that a statewide corridor still existed and could still be saved.

Then in 2015 we undertook a second expedition of similar scale to showcase the corridor connecting the Everglades Headwaters near Orlando to Gulf Islands National Seashore between Pensacola and Alabama. These first two expeditions celebrated the wild beauty and hope for conserving the corridor that is hidden in plain sight from many Floridians, while doing our best to bring attention to the threats.

But my biggest frustration has been the lack of public investment in land conservation since we founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The Florida Forever program, established under Republican leadership in 1990, had spent $300 million a year on land conservation until being set to zero to balance the state budget during the peak of the recession. Then Gov. Rick Scott came into office and funding to Florida Forever was left at zero while water management districts were also weakened in their capacities to protect land. Meanwhile, development resumed devouring corridor lands with prerecession gusto but with no functional conservation tools to balance it.

Conservation organizations and voters shared my frustration, placing the Water and Land Conservation Initiative as Amendment 1 on the 2014 ballot and passing it with a resounding 75 percent majority. One-third of existing real estate transaction taxes were to be spent on land conservation, which should be $800 million a year based on the current budgets.

But lawmakers refused to follow the will of voters and diverted most of these funds to other purposes. As lawmakers turned away from their responsibilities to protect the land, they poured $10 billion a year into road projects and development resumed chewing up more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat per year. Legislative priorities for short-term growth have been dishearteningly clear while the sustainability of life on the peninsula has been largely ignored.

Our 2018 Heartland to Headwaters Expedition took a different approach from our previous treks. We went straight to the tattered fringe of the corridor on the outskirts of Orlando with a grueling weeklong slog (bit.ly/2HBs8bC) to highlight publicly a last fragile thread of green between the Everglades Headwaters and the Green Swamp. The contrast between the wild and developed worlds was overwhelming. Paddling beneath Interstate 4 on Reedy Creek, we emerged from a beautiful forested floodplain laden with wildlife to face a roaring wall of vehicles on America’s deadliest road for motorists.

We learned from biologist Jen Korn that two panthers had been killed within a quarter mile of the creek — something cross-fencing and wildlife ledges beneath the bridge could have prevented. That was actually the encouraging news. The intensity of new roads and housing in the immediate vicinity is fast making these Everglades headwaters an ecological cul-de-sac, with the prospect of retaining connectivity to the Green Swamp diminishing every day. If we don’t accelerate the pace of conservation, the corridor in this area will soon be lost. (Stay tuned for a film about this journey coming this fall.) The stakes for conservation have never been higher and we hope to shine a light on the issues this election year.

Gov. Scott and lawmakers have put $100 million in this year’s budget for Florida Forever. That is a step in the right direction, but only 1 percent of the roads budget. The state needs to spend five times that amount on land protection annually to balance conservation with development and save the corridor.

This month, a Tallahassee judge ruled that the Legislature had "defied" the 2014 Water and Land Conservation Initiative by improperly diverting funds to purposes other than land protection. Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, put it this way: "The circuit court judge recognized the Legislature was wrong when they spent Amendment 1 funds on existing operating expenses instead of new parks, restoration and protecting conservation lands — which is what people like you and I have been saying all along." The Legislature will likely appeal this ruling, making it important for voters to stay vigilant and support candidates who will make conservation a priority.

I find most hope in the fact that landowners, such as cattle ranchers, representing millions of acres in the corridor, are interested in alternatives to development. By investing state and federal conservation funds into conservation easements, we can ensure that sustainable agriculture will continue as a foundation of Florida’s economy while protecting watersheds that supply three-fourths of Florida’s freshwater and keeping the corridor connected.

The Florida Forever program has 2.1 million acres of land listed as high priority for conservation, and the Rural and Family Land Protection Program has more than 100 farms and ranches on its waiting list. There has been little movement on protecting properties on these lists during the past decade, and the ability of landowners to keep waiting will not last forever.

Developers need these conservation funds, too. If a housing developer acquires a 10,000-acre ranch, they will not have financial capacity to set aside enough land to preserve a functional wildlife corridor while also making a profitable development. But state funding for conservation easements or land buying can make large-scale development and conservation work together.

This is the case with Babcock Ranch, which our team crossed during the 2012 Everglades to Okefenokee expedition. Developer Syd Kitson is able to make a new development concentrated on 17,000 acres of land in part because Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush was willing to spend more than $300 million to buy the remaining 74,000 acres for conservation.

Without the public-private partnership exhibited at Babcock Ranch, the first female Florida panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973 might not have a home. My current Path of the Panther project is focused on the story of the Florida panther as an emblem of the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor and a catalyst to keep it connected.

When I asked generational cattle rancher Cary Lightsey about the female panther documented at Babcock Ranch, he told me "The panther is going to have to help us save Florida … because it will help people understand why we need to save these large landscapes."

Another sign of hope: The National Wildlife Federation issued a resolution at its June meeting encouraging Congress to establish a National Wildlife Corridors System. "Being part of a nationwide network could help us strengthen the statewide designation and also demonstrates how Florida can be a leader in setting a strategic vision for conservation," explained Lindsay Cross, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Like the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a National Wildlife Corridors System is a big idea, and it is exactly the kind of thinking needed to achieve a sustainable balance between human communities and the natural systems that make our lives possible.

Researchers and I recently photographed the female panther at Babcock Ranch with kittens. If they survive, what future will they find? Will development continue unchecked and permanently isolate panthers to the southern tip of Florida where they will never reach sustainable numbers? Or will we protect the corridor so that the panthers and my own children will inherit a Florida in balance?

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 at his gallery in Tampa. Follow him on Instagram and on Twitter at @CarltonWard.

     
       
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