n two expeditions, three friends and trailblazing conservationists have already trekked more than 2,000 miles through wildlands crisscrossing the state to prove the viability of a Florida Wildlife Corridor, a network of the best remaining connected wild lands in the state. Today those three — ecologist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr. and biologist Joe Guthrie — embark on their hardest journey yet: They hope to show there’s still a way for wildlife to cross the Interstate 4 corridor that bisects the state and find a critical but narrow connection linking the Everglades headwaters to the Green Swamp in Central Florida.
On foot, bicycle and paddleboard the trio will thread the needle of the easternmost of three thin north-south natural connections that still exist in the I-4 region between Tampa and Orlando. The weeklong "Heartland to Headwaters" Expedition will provide an overdue checkup on this imperiled piece of the larger corridor that is acutely intertwined with the urban edge.
To assess if the connection is still workable, the team will have to navigate obstacles and dodge traffic, following narrow bands of green space around new construction to try to reach the Green Swamp, the state’s second largest wetland and a centerpiece of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. If the habitat linkage breaks down beyond repair from cuts by crossroads and other deleterious effects of sprawling development at its edges, then plants and animals inhabiting South Florida and the Greater Everglades are at risk of being cut off from the rest of the state and country.
The Everglades is one of only three locations worldwide designated a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance, as well as one of the unique and most visible ecological gems of our state. The Everglades is the locus of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Many large mammals, like Florida panthers and Florida black bears, maintain significant populations in its vast expanse, but they also need room to roam.
Last year marked the first female Florida panther documented north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973, meaning that until very recently, the southern Everglades alone sheltered the last surviving population of big cats in the eastern United States. As Florida’s human population continues to grow and expand, ranches and homesteads are sold and developed, and the network of privately owned lands linking large public protected areas, like Everglades National Park and Ocala National Forest, becomes increasingly fragmented.
Expeditions in 2012 and in 2015 brought to light a forgotten side of Florida’s natural beauty, inviting people to experience the wild heart of Florida stretching beyond our beaches and theme parks, and to care about its long-term survival. Permanently protecting the corridor requires significant investment to purchase conservation easements or essential lands through programs like Florida Forever.
Some headway has been made in educating citizens and elected officials about protection efforts, including securing $100 million for conservation in 2018. However, with an annual roads budget of $10 billion, Florida’s development far outpaces its land protection. Twenty acres of natural and agricultural lands are lost to development every hour. This expedition will bring much-needed attention to the current status and future outlook for wild lands and waters in the third-largest state in the nation, where population growth continues unabated.
Protecting this reach of the corridor is also about human health and quality of life. As a freshwater source for 15 million Floridians, including water for much of the Tampa Bay area, the importance of these vast wetland systems at either end of this thread cannot be overstated. The public lands that bookend this trek offer myriad recreational opportunities, and even the smaller tracts, parks and trails offer needed natural escapes for urban dwellers.
Mystery surrounds what the next week will bring for the expedition team. Swamp water levels are low or dry, and backcountry areas are still littered with downed trees and debris from Hurricane Irma, making passage difficult. Fences and lack of trails limit access or travel along upland areas, and the floodplain is often tightly constrained to less than three-tenths of a mile wide in some places.
The team will experience firsthand the difficulty wildlife encounter when moving through marginal habitat. Navigation for wildlife in this region is dangerous at best and fatal at worst. As the metro Orlando area grows, urban and suburban developments consume once-wild spaces at a frightening pace. To restore and maintain safe corridors for animal movement, new wildlife tunnels or other passage will need to be prioritized and constructed.
You can follow the journey over the next few weeks. (See how, at right.) Keep up with the team through daily social media and blog postings and share your ideas for keeping Florida wild.
Lindsay Cross is executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and Mallory Lykes Dimmitt is a member of the expedition team.