Conservationists want Florida wildlife to have its own corridor

10/09/12 Janelle Irwin
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Natural habitats in Florida are being threatened by development and road expansion. A group of conservationists are trying to establish a tract of protected land from the Everglades through Central Florida and north to Georgia to protect natural resources and wildlife. At an event at Stetson University College of Law today, Carlton Ward Junior explained what the Florida Wildlife Corridor could mean for Floridians.

The grandson of a rancher, Carlton Ward Jr. organized a 1,000 mile expedition from South Florida to Georgia that lasted 100 days. His goal was to document what pristine natural habitats exist in the state’s undeveloped areas and raise awareness for creating a wildlife corridor through the state. Ward said the preservation effort is necessary to protect species like the Florida Panther which can only breed by crossing one small section of land.

"It's the only place where male panthers naturally swim across the Caloosahatchee River. Currently all the breeding females are south of the river and this piece of land was just in February was protected by the Nature Conservancy and a couple different agencies. They bought it, basically at the courthouse steps when it was in foreclosure trying to be sold for development and if that had happened here, the only way any panther would naturally move north and south through the state would be in the back of a truck tranquilized."

The Florida Panther isn’t the only species that could be threatened by continued development in Florida where the population is expected to double over the next 50 years. Zach Forsberg participated in the expedition which ended on Earth Day this year. During a film clip he talked about putting tracking devices on Indigo Snakes which are listed as a threatened species in Florida and Georgia.

"The Indigo Snake is the largest non-venomous snake in North America. They reach up to 8.5 feet long. Their range is from South Georgia down to the Keys. They eat anything they can swallow. They're non-constrictors so they have to subdue their pray and eat it whole. They are known and documented to eat every venomous snake in Florida. They're immune to their venom so they'll eat full grown Rattle Snakes and Timber Rattle Snakes."

The effort would also restore water flow to the Everglades and sustain the water supply to Southern Florida and protect the St. Johns River which is a large water supply for North Florida. But Ward, the expedition’s organizer, said it’s not a cheap endeavor. According to him, to protect just the Everglades headwaters would cost about $500 million.

"Two thirds of those acres [sic] would be spent on buying development rights and the other portion would be spent on actually buying land."

And land would need to be purchased all over the state to make the corridor a reality. Ward said a lot of the land included on the proposed tract already falls under the Florida Forever list. That program acquires land for environmental protection, but is only receiving $8.4 million from the state next year even though the list of land they want totals $11 billion. Still, a lot would have to be purchased from private owners.

"Well, if you take the entire wildlife corridor opportunity area, there'd be approximately 7 million total acres. Of that, about 3.5 million - roughly half - are in some sort of protected status, state or federal or private conservation easement or county. There's about half out there that's in private ownership without any form of protection."

According to Ward, a lot of the private owners are interested in selling their land for conservation efforts. Paying for it would require dedication of funding at the state and national level. Ward said there is a funding opportunity through the Water and Land Legacy initiative that uses real estate fees already in existence.

"And this is a new effort that's trying to put, by constitutional amendment for 2014, to solidify a certain amount of funding towards Florida Forever landscapes for the next 20 years and if we can help get that initiative in place, I think it can ensure that there are resources directed toward these goals."

Ward and his team hosted people along the way to share their goals. That included ranchers and even some politicians like Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. But the expedition wasn’t all just marketing and science. Ward had fun too. One of his trail stories included a bear Ward nicknamed Ironhide.

"Joe came in with a dart rifle and was going to put a collar on it because the large males often travel the furthest and create the most interesting data. So, I kind of radio'd it in from above - text messaged him at, like, 5 am - looking through a night vision scope and I'm like, 'yep, the big one's here.' So he came and he had his own entourage of scientists and an Audubon Magazine writer and kind of a high pressure situation and he kind of - with some guidance from the tree stand - snuck in to where the bear wasn't, but then it came within ten yards of him and he took the shot with the dart rifle and it somehow bounced right out."

And Elam Stoltzfus, a filmmaker who documented the expedition had some memorable moments too that he talked about in the film.

"On the St. Johns River just south of Lake Harney, there was a morning it was really foggy and I was really tired that morning and I didn't really feel like getting up, but I noticed the fog was rolling in so I waited and I waited and the other kayak was only 15 feet from the tent and I waited until right when the sun was getting ready to break through. I grabbed the camera, got on the kayak and went around the bend of the river and right there was a scene - there was marsh, grasses and just paddling right into the sun."

Leaders of the Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative hope to increase economic stability in surrounding areas by increasing hunting and other eco-tourism activities as well as sustain food production on farm lands. More information is on their website.

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