The three members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition wrapped up their trek through the middle of the state this weekend. They regaled their supporters at a finale at historic Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.
Their seven-day, 60-mile journey took the conservationists – Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, Joe Guthrie and Carlton Ward Jr. – through a natural pathway that's still preserved, connecting Highlands and Polk counties.
But even this relatively remote area is under threat from a proposed toll road that would connect Polk to Collier County. Dimmitt said there is still hope to save these lands before they're paved under by development.
"This is a place of hope. It has a chance and will be saved and maintained in the future, " Dimmitt said to a group of about 100 people gathered at Bok Tower Gardens. "There's more to do - it doesn't mean we can let up. But there's so much good work going on already."
"There's a stronghold east of (U.S.) 27 on the east side of the Ridge, and we just need to add some connections and permanent protections on the west side of the Ridge, and I think it will continue to stay that way, if all the stars align and we keep that conservation work going," she said.
One of the hallmarks of this trek was the first half, when the trio traveled mostly on horseback through ranchlands. The preservation of ranches through conservation easements is considered a critical part of the effort to preserve the wildlife corridor. Easements pay landowners not to develop their land, easing taxes on property that would then remain in its natural state.
The trio got permission to traverse those ranches, and many times the ranchers would travel with them up to the next property line.
Guthrie said to him, these trips are many things.
"Perhaps the most important thing is it's a network of human stories," he said. "It's a network of people - extraordinary Floridians - who have chosen to anchor their lives in the land. And what richness there is there that we’re somehow blessed to enjoy."
Ward is a noted wildlife photographer who comes from a long family of Florida ranchers. He said now is the time for their supporters to put pressure on the state Department of Transportation to route the proposed toll road away from the most vital parts of the corridor, and maybe get transportation tax dollars to help preserve some of their targeted land.
"This is a really pivotal moment in time, and it means a tremendous amount for your support. Stay tuned, stay signed up for the newsletter," he told the crowd, "because we'll be having some more clarified calls to action in the months to come, for sure."
Their journey will be documented in a short film that will be released in several months. Their last "mini-trek" on a wildlife pathway bisected by Walt Disney World resulted in a documentary, The Last Green Thread.