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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.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition Starts 'Mini-Trek' Sunday

They've gone on two 1,000-mile treks across the state, as well as paddling a narrow green thread bisecting Disney World. This weekend, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is getting cranked up once again.

This time, the trio of conservationists will traverse a wildlife corridor connecting Highlands and Polk counties for seven days.

The Lake Wales Ridge was one of the few places in Florida above water during the last bout of global warming two million years ago. Many species there are found nowhere else in the world. Wildlife Corridor Executive director Jason Lauritsen says this area needs to continue to be connected to other natural areas of the state before development closes off those routes.

"It's a hot spot for global biodiversity," he said. "It's the place with the most concentrated endemic species east of the Mississsippi River. It's an amazing biodiversity spot. And it's worth protecting."

SPECIAL REPORT: Read more about the Florida Wildlife Corridor's past expeditions.

Only a series of small islands there poked above the rising seas about two million years ago. The remnants of those islands have formed the Lake Wales Ridge. The "islands" support distinctive life forms.

"These were beach dunes. These were sandy 300-feet-tall sand dunes," Lauritsen said. "There are three prominent ridges to the Lake Wales Ridge area. Some of them are 2.5 million years old. Incredibly old ecosystems, where the plant communities have developed over a long, long period of time.

"And having a long period of time to adapt to change is critical for plant communities, because they're just inherently slow moving. And they don't have the capacity to respond through their seed range to move and migrate up and down hill. So climate change does pose some risks for fragmented communities like this, because they are exceptionally pinched off by roads and impervious surfaces, and have the inability to pollinate in places downstream or uphill."

The Lake Wales Ridge has high, sandy soil that has traditionally been perfect for growing citrus. But now that citrus greening has decimated many groves, it's also perfect for houses.

Expedition leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt of Tampa says this area of the Ridge is at risk from sprawling development.

"When you look at the overall Florida wildlife corridor, the majority of the protected area is back to the east," she said. "And so we are now highlighting the fragile edges, and the places that are at risk of changing over most quickly from natural areas or conservation land to developed areas. And the loss of habitat and wildlife that will follow."

The trio - Dimmitt, renowned wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and bear biologist Joe Guthrie - will  cross U.S. 27, where state transportation planners are considering raising the road and building an underpass for wildlife.

Dimmitt said the wildlife corridor is making headway in getting public attention - and state conservation dollars - to protect wildlife migration paths.

"I think we are just starting to see more movement in Tallahassee, and I think the public has always been supportive, so we're starting to see at Cabinet meetings now, new conservation deals being approved," she said. "And that is giving everyone in the conservation community hope that we're going to keep increasing this pace of conservation. And of course, we've got to continue to do so in order to protect the corridor and just to keep up with the pace of development."

The trek will kick off Sunday morning at Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring.

On Monday at 8 a.m., they'll join the staff from Archbold Biological Station staff on a scrub jay banding at Silver Lake Tract Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife Environmental Area.

On Tuesday, they'll visit Avon Park Harebell colony with a plant biologist and cross U.S. 27 at the site of a proposed wildlife crossing

Wednesday, they'll host a restoration roundtable at the Ridge Audubon Center, beginning at 5 p.m.

On Thursday through Saturday, they'll traverse the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, Avon Park Air Force Range and arrive at The Nature Conservancy's Tiger Creek Preserve. There will be a finale Saturday, Oct. 26, at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. 

Wildlife Corridor map
Credit Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition
Map of the 2019 trek


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