Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition twice embarked on 1,000-mile treks across the state in the past seven years. Their mission: to bring attention to the need to protect corridors between preserved areas so wildlife can migrate through Florida.
On Monday, they're kicking off a week-long mission in an relatively urban area between Tampa and Orlando. They're paddling and hiking a narrow thread of green that survives between metropolitan Orlando and the Four Corners area of northeast Polk County.
They pushed back the beginning of the trip Sunday because of heavy rains. But before the rains came, expedition members held a kickoff for supporters at the Disney Wilderness Preserve, near the Polk-Osceola county line.
There, team leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt hopped on her paddleboard on Lake Russell, and the heavens opened up.
"We've had a great sendoff (for expedition supporters) here today at the Disney Wilderness Preserve," she said, as black clouds raced across the tops of the cypress trees lining the lake. "...The rain's starting now, just starting to fall right as we get going. So pretty appropos the minute we actually get on our boards, then the rain starts. It seems like a fitting sendoff for the wildlife corridor."
Expedition member and wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. of Tampa said nearby Interstate 4 is becoming a dividing line between the wild systems at the headwaters of the Everglades and the rest of the state.
"If we look to our north, cookie-cutter subdivisions are squeezing their way down and radiating out from Orlando," he said from the Disney Preserve, south of Kissimmee. "If you look to our south, you have nothing but public lands and ranches and working farms all the way to Lake Okeechobee. It puts in context the opportunity and the threat."
The expedition team wants to persuade traffic planners to put wildlife underpasses beneath I-4, which has been done for several other major highways, including Alligator Alley.
"It's going to be the anti-wildlife corridor if we don't put steps in place to protect it," Ward said. "Because Interstate 4 is quickly becoming a dividing line - especially between Orlando and Tampa that could cut the Everglades system off between the rest of our state and the rest of our country."
The advocates also want money from the state's Florida Forever land-buying program used to preserve these corridors before they're developed, and lost forever.
A 360 degree look at Lake Russell in the Disney Wilderness Preserve Sunday before the @FL_WildCorridor expedition embarked. #KeepFLWild #Heartland2Headwaters @WUSF - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
A 360 degree look at Lake Russell in the Disney Wilderness Preserve Sunday before the expedition embarked.
Bear biologist Joe Guthrie rejoined the expedition from his current post in Virginia. It was his tracking of a bear that migrated north from Highlands County and tried repeatedly without success to cross Interstate 4 that was the genesis for the first expedition in 2012. That trip went 1,000 miles from Flamingo, and the tip of the Everglades, north to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
Their second trip in 2015 started out near this current trek, in Osceola County, northwest across the Florida Panhandle to Pensacola and the Alabama state line.