WUSF is following the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they bike, hike and kayak from Central Florida through the Panhandle to the Alabama state line. The three conservationists recently visited the coastal hamlet of Steinhatchee, deep in the Nature Coast. We paddled with them down the Steinhatchee River, fording some falls and getting a lesson in how much preserving the lands can spark Florida's economy.
If you're spending too much time stuck in traffic in what has fast become the nation's third-largest state, and think the real Florida - the natural Florida - is long gone, well, you haven't been on the Steinhatchee River.
"The first couple of miles, there's not going to be any houses, it's a beautiful, shady canopy kind of river floodplain. It's really gorgeous," says Liz Sparks, paddling trail coordinator for the state's Office of Greenways and Trails.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition recently held a group paddle here, putting in at Steinhatchee Falls.
You've never heard of it? No wonder - this is no Niagara.
It's about two feet high.
It's what passes for a rapids in Florida. Sparks says what it lacks in height is made up for in its history.
"For millenia, people have been using the falls there as a river crossing," says Sparks. "And you can take a minute and look and still see there's ruts where the wagons went across. So there's been pioneers, Andrew Jackson and Indians before that. So it's a real historically significant area."
Edwin McCook is with the Suwannee River Water Management District, which owns nearly 30,000 acres at the headwaters of the Steinhatchee.
"It's special to me, because I grew up in this area. And it's what Florida looked like back in the turn of the century, and the wild green spaces is just beautiful," he says.
Just downstream from the falls, he points out limestone studding the shoreline. That's the underground aquifer poking its way to the surface.
"As you get closer down to the Gulf on some of the District lands, you'll see karst windows that open straight into the aquifer," says McCook. "And the limestone in most of this is probably six inches to a foot deep below the soil."
From 15 to 20 springs bubble to the surface before the river empties into the Gulf. Their constant temperature holds the promise of warm water for manatees in the winter, and cold waters to freeze your own feet in the summer. It's all a matter of perspective.
Steinhatchee is nestled in the Nature Coast, where it begins its sweeping arc from Peninsular Florida to the Panhandle. It's one of those charming old-time fishing villages they don't make anymore - a no-stoplight town with only a few roads that wind along the river toward the coast.
Steinhatchee's biggest - and probably only - claim to fame was the Steinhatchee 7, whose arrest made national headlines back in 1973. They loaded up a shrimp boat with nine tons of marijuana. Deputies snagged 450 burlap bags of Jamaican weed - at that time, the largest pot bust in the nation's history.
That was probably the most exciting thing to ever happen around here.
Sparks says it's that kind of isolation that is also it's biggest draw.
"Outdoor recreation is a huge, huge part of the tourism engine that fuels the state's economy. And outdoor recreation brings $38.3 billion in direct consumer spending every single year," she says. "Fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing. Wildlife viewing is huge - it's like the second thing residents and visitors do when they come to Florida. First they go to the beach, then they come here to view wildlife. And that's like $3 billion dollars a year - just in wildlife viewing."
There was no shortage of that kind of viewing for members of the expedition.
"As we're going south to north, there are all these intriguing little side roads that go to the Gulf of Mexico on the west. So we're taking these side trips to go out and put our feet in the actual Gulf of Mexico. And it's so cool to transition from these coastal forests or pine uplands right down to the Gulf Coast, and sawgrass marshes," says expedition leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt.
"So they are mostly protected, there are a lot of great protected areas, and then there are these inholdings that are these small communities, that really care about the surrounding lands, and that's great. There are some places that are in need of protection, and we'll do our best to highlight these as we go through."
Expedition member Joe Guthrie recounted a side trip to Hagen's Cove, an isolated spot along the Gulf coast.
"And there were thousands of shorebirds, all standing in water that was about two inches deep - just a plane of them, as far as you could see," he says. "I mean they were even out of sight. It was really neat."
Expedition photographer and founder Carlton Ward Jr. says extending that protection is one of the reasons why they're traveling here.
"The more time I spend here, the more I recognize and appreciate that this part of Florida is a wide open frontier for conservation," he says. "We had a chance to meet with the manager for the national wildlife refuges in this area, including the Lower Suwannee and Crystal River, and he put it in perspective that there is an opportunity for a million acres of conservation with only a small number of landowners. You have timber companies with 500,000 acres under management. And that's Everglades-scale conservation opportunities up here on the Gulf coast.
Ward says there's that's where money from the recently-passed Amendment One can help.
This Saturday, the expedition will host a group hike at Ochlockonee State Park, just south of Sopchoppy, open to the public.