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Cabinet members join group on expedition across Florida

By BRUCE RITCHIE

A team of conservationists on a 1,000-mile expedition across Florida was joined by two Cabinet officials last week just past midway on their trek.

Photographer Carlton Ward Jr., biologist Joe Guthrie and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus began their journey on Jan. 9 from Florida Bay at the tip of Everglades National Park. They are making their way to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge at the Georgia line to raise awareness of the need for a conserving natural areas throughout the corridor.

Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam joined Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition this week as they paddled in kayaks along the St. Johns River near Titusville. As Cabinet members, Bondi and Putnam approve state land purchases — and Putnam’s Florida Forestry Services manages some of those natural areas.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s beautiful,” Bondi said. “We saw all these species of birds that I had never seen before — some I had never heard of. I think we need to promote families to do more of this in our state — it’s incredible.”

Putnam called it a “fantastic” experience and said the corridor could create a priority ranking for state land purchases through the area.

The area extends through a “quilt” of state-owned lands, tracts with conservation agreements along with working ranches and farms, Putnam said.

He said the corridor concept emphasizes the need for land purchases and conservation agreements that allow bears, panthers or other mammals to roam great distances as opposed to isolated purchases elsewhere.

“I’m not suggesting that be the only consideration,” Putnam said. “But the policy implication could be you give additional weight where you have the opportunity to close gaps.”

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January announced the creation of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area through a portion of the corridor north of Lake Okeechobee. The initiative involves the federal purchase of land and protection agreements across 150,000 acres.

Florida’s land acquisition program, Florida Forever, was the largest in the nation from 1990 through 2008. But its $300 million annual funding was sharply reduced by the Legislature beginning in 2009.

The proposed 2012-13 state budget includes $8.3 million for Florida Forever. Gov. Rick Scott had requested $15 million for the program.

(Photos courtesy of Carlton Ward Photography courtesy of Carlton Ward Photography, used with permission. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Please do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from brucebritchie@gmail.com.)

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