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The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team has trekked through scrub, swamp and forest from one end of the state to the other. They have documented their journeys in film, books and photography exhibitions with a goal demonstrating the urgent need for an unbroken spine of wilderness running the length of Florida to give wildlife a chance for survival.The third expedition kicked off April 15 and once again, WUSF News reporters are along for the adventure. This time around the explorers want to highlight an area of wilderness in Central Florida that is threatened on all sides by urban development and transportation infrastructure including Interstate 4.WUSF Public Media is a sponsor of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Follow along on with our reporters on our website and social media accounts on Facebook and on Twitter, using the hashtag #Heartland2Headwaters.

Making a Florida Wildlife Corridor a Reality

Expedition members Carlton Ward, left, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Joe Guthrie in March
Expedition members Carlton Ward, left, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Joe Guthrie in March

It's been 1,000 miles in nearly 100 days. They started at the tip of the Everglades, and Sunday, members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition reached the finish line - Georgia. Their goal is to connect the state's WUSF's Steve Newborn has been following the group, and reports on their mission - and whether it has a chance of succeeding.

Expedition member Carlton Ward Junior remembers slogging for days through the heart of the Everglades on kayak...

"We pushed on into the night, so we had about two hours in the dark, following the line, kind of flying by instruments on the GPS," he said. "Man, I ran over two alligators that nearly threw me out of my kayak. You couldn't quite tell what was coming around each corner."

And filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus remembers being regaled by cowboy poets at campfires and dining on frog legs and turtles at an Indian reservation near Lake Okeechobee...

"Florida's one of the greatest studios that exist," he said. "And to be able to be outdoors and see these epic scenes and trying to emotionally capture small slices of life as we go through this expedition has just been an incredible experience.

Now, they've reached the end of the trail.

On Sunday, the four members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition walked across the Georgia state line into the Okeefenokee Swamp. It was one thousand miles and nearly 100 days ago when they boarded kayaks in Florida Bay at the tip of the Everglades.

They sport calluses and legs hardened by three months of hiking through sawgrass, palmetto stands and piney woods. They risked their lives walking across two Interstates.

But that might have been the easy part.

Now, they have to make their vision of creating a continuous corridor for wildlife running the length of the state a reality.

It's not a new idea. Corridors to connect fragmented wild areas have been proposed for states as different as California and New Jersey. There's even a trans-national one planned to stretch from "Yukon to Yellowstone."

But do they really help to heal fragmented landscapes? Who better to answer that question than the guy behind the web site, "Do Corridors Work?"

"These are the questions that take decades to answer, and we don't really know that corridors will serve this purpose," says Paul Beier. The professor of conservation biology at Northern Arizona University co-authored statewide maps of wildlife corridors in Arizona and California.

"All the studies that have been done so far has done at typically small scales, and only looking at very short-term animal movement," he says. "What's yet to be done is whether the longer corridors - on the scale of miles - will over the long term promote gene flow and allow things like animals to re-colonize areas."

Still, Beier says that's no reason to give up on the idea. What may be more practical, he says, is a system of shorter connections.

"The way to conceive of this interconnected system of corridors in Florida would not be to think of one corridor going from the Everglades to Georgia," he says. "There can be some very valuable corridors that go from one national park to the next, to the next state park and to the next wildlife area. And each of those corridors can be very valuable - even if the entire network doesn't come to fruition."

And just who would pay for a corridor?

Florida Forever, the state's main land preservation program,  barely has enough money to maintain the lands it has. So that means leaning on people like private ranchers, using conservation easements and tax incentives so their land doesn't get developed.

"Private landowners are really starting to embrace the future of conservation," says Nick Wiley, is head of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "Those are the original Floridians who love the land. And that love for the land is translating into a broader vision, a broader interest, in protecting that landscape."

One of those ranchers on board is Mike Adams. He's the third-generation president of Adams Ranch, 54,000 acres and 9,000 cows in Osceola County. I spoke to him in March, when the expedition stayed overnight in his lodge.

"From our business, in the cattle business, we feel we're a good fit with the wildlife," says Adams. " It's something that we were raised with and have a great respect for. And we feel like this is an important project to see go forward, because essentially, all our coastlines on either side have been built out, and those corridors are gone. And they will not return."

Expedition leader Carlton Ward says half the battle is just educating Floridians on the ranches, swamps and beauty of natural Florida.

"We have nearly 19 million people, most of those people are living along the coastlines, two-thirds of those people weren't born in Florida. And so there's not necessarily a place of sense or a sense of identity that relates to interior Florida," says Ward. "At the same time, most of our water, wildlife and food come from this interior area. So it has tremendous importance to everyone living along the coasts - but in many ways is still terra incognitia in their minds."

He says publicizing that "unknown land" in the minds of the state's movers and shakers is their next mission.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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