Walking the Florida Wild
Sometimes conservation requires extreme measures. For a crew from the advocacy group Florida Wildlife Corridor, that meant hiking, biking and paddling more than 1,000 miles in 10 weeks this year through forests, fields, swamps and sand dunes.
Carlton Ward Jr., a wildlife photographer, Joe Guthrie, a biologist, and Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, the executive director of the advocacy group, trekked from Orlando to Pensacola. They began their journey near The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in the center of the state and headed northwest until they almost reached the Alabama border. The journey—the second for the group—aimed to raise awareness about an opportunity to protect a corridor of Florida’s connected lands and waters before it’s too late and critical links are developed.
“Those are places that a lot of Florida doesn’t know exist,” says Guthrie. “That’s the challenge for the entire state.”
Last year, Florida’s population reached 19.9 million people, surpassing New York to become the third-most populous state in the country. All of that growth and the urban sprawl that already exists have added a sense of urgency for some conservationists’ efforts to connect the state’s isolated wildernesses.
“In the 1940s, Florida’s population hit 2 million for the first time,” says Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian. “Disneyworld didn’t exist. Orlando was a small town. The Florida panther could go anywhere it wanted from one end of the state to the other.”
Wide-ranging animals like the iconic panther require expansive open spaces. Others like the Florida black bear—which Guthrie studies—have numerous isolated populations that become more genetically resilient when they can connect,and interbreed with other groups.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign launched in 2010 as a way to put a public face on the long-discussed challenge of connecting the state’s increasingly isolated natural areas. The group is advocating for a corridor that would protect 15.8 million acres, or more than a third of the state. About 60 percent of that area is already protected, Dimmitt says.
That of course doesn’t make traversing 1,000 miles any easier. Despite planning for a year and previously completing a 1,000-mile, 100-day trek from the Everglades to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia, the team encountered some problems: drowned GoPro video cameras, smashed camera lenses, paddling gloves frozen in 20-degree Fahrenheit winter temperatures. It also seemed to rain buckets every time the team traveled for an extended period without a support crew nearby, Ward says.
But in other moments, everything seemed to go right. Guthrie, the bear biologist, stumbled upon bear tracks in unexpected places—a hopeful sign that it is not too late to protect wild lands. Dimmitt swam with manatees. Together all three wandered through miles of unbroken longleaf pine woodlands—the remnants of a once vast southeastern forest.
And overall there was an appreciation for the long journey. “There is an incredible amount of wild Florida out there still,” Ward says. “It’s either still connected or has a chance to be connected. That’s really exciting as a Floridian and as a conservationist that we have a chance to keep it up for the next generation.”
See more photos from the team’s trek at Florida Wildlife Corridor’s online photo gallery.