A conservation photographer, biologist and filmmaker on Tuesday will begin a nearly 1,000-mile trek up the Florida peninsula to highlight the need for maintaining a habitat corridor through the area.
Along the way, they expect to stay with ranch landowners and be joined by some conservation leaders and elected officials including possibly U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr., bear biologist Joe Guthrie, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus launch their journey on Jan. 17. They start from Florida Bay at the tip of Everglades National Park and expect to finish 100 days later at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge at the Georgia line.
Their route will follow public conservation lands such as Everglades National Park, the proposed Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge south of Orlando, the St. Johns River and the Ocala National Forest. Several trail segments will cross through corridors of private land that are proposed for purchase by state or federal agencies for conservation through landowner agreements.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor, Guthrie said, arises from the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN) and Critical Linkages concept produced by Tom Hoctor at the University of Florida. The FEGN is administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in cooperation with the Conservation Trust for Florida.
Panthers and bears roam the corridor in South Florida on the outskirts of Disney World around citrus groves, cattle ranches, swamps and forests. In north Florida, the corridor links the sandhill forests at Camp Blanding military base with vast swamps of the Okefenokee.
Maintaining a corridor through the area will protect farming and ranching, wildlife habitat and water supplies for the region, Ward said.
“I would like state leaders to keep Florida’s green infrastructure and agriculture production as a priority,” he said. “Just in those simple terms, this is important. This is our last chance to get it right.”
About 300 miles of the trip will be paddling through areas such as Shark Slough in the Everglades while the rest will be on foot, some of it along the established Florida National Scenic Trail.
The trip could be shortened by half by following roads and highways. Instead, it will twist and wind through habitat areas such as Babcock Ranch, Fakahatchee Strand, Picayune Strand and the Lake Wales Ridge.
“There are a lot of key stepping stones we have to take in the path,” Ward said. “To connect those takes us to 1,000 miles. We don’t do any extraneous traveling to get to that number.”
They may be camping, sleeping in bunkhouses or staying in other rustic settings. “We have sworn off hotels,” Guthrie said.
Dimmit says despite having vehicle assistance for equipment and lodging, going the 1,000 miles in 100 days won’t be easy.
“I am really looking forward to this,” she said. “I think I have never gone with a group that wants to carry so much equipment.”
The team will document the corridor through photography, video streams, radio reports, daily updates on social media and digital networks and other activities. Stoltzfus will document the expedition for a film about the journey and the wildlife corridor.
Ward is an eighth-generation Floridian whose family includes ranchers. His 2009 Book, Florida Cowboys, won a silver medal in the Florida Book Awards. Popular Photography Magazine featured him as one of three photographers working to save vanishing America.
Joe Guthrie moved to Florida while working for the University of Kentucky to study the ecology and conservation of a small Florida black bear population in Highlands and Glades counties. His master’s thesis focused on the function of corridors and highway crossings for bear movement south‐central Florida’s developing landscape.
Stoltzfus is a producer, director and cinematographer of film documentaries and educational programs. They include “Living Waters: the Aquatic Preserves of Florida,” “Apalachicola River: An American Treasure” and “Big Cypress Swamp: the Western Everglades.”
Dimmitt is a director, vice‐chair of the Corporate Responsibility Committee and a 5th-generation member of the Florida‐based family agri‐business company, Lykes Brothers, Inc. She specializes in a variety of environmental issues and previously worked for The Nature Conservancy in Telluride, Colo.
She said the importance of agriculture to conservation in the state’s heartland may be overlooked by residents living on the coasts.
“I think its an important part of the mix,” she said. “The unique thing about the Florida Wildlife Corridor is the matrix of land ownership.”
(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Photos and expedition map copyrighted by Carlton Ward Jr., used with permission.)