It was tough going, but members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition finished their "mini-trek" over the weekend, traversing a green corridor between Tampa and Orlando. The explorers say they saw the most wildlife once they got past their biggest barrier - Interstate 4.
Expedition member and wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. described the trip as a conflict between two Floridas that are colliding. One is the main transportation corridor between Tampa and Orlando and the other a crossroads for wildlife.
South of I-4 in Osceola County, the narrow corridor along Reedy Creek was so overgrown expedition members said it made hiking difficult. But once they passed under the Interstate on Thursday, they said they found some surprises.
"We had our most intimate wildlife experiences with Florida native wildlife like limpkins and cottonmouth (snakes) and we were like less than half a mile from Disney's Animal Kingdom," Ward said at the end of the trek Saturday at Little Everglades Ranch, near Dade City.
Ward said he, expedition leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and bear biologist Joe Guthrie are trying to bring attention to the need to protect the wild corridors that connect preserved spaces before they're gobbled up by development.
"To be out there with teammates like Joe and Mallory, who share this passion for these places, (they) can help share these stories and help other people fall in love with these places the way we have,” Ward said. “I feel very optimistic that we can bring the rest of the state into this story with us, and lead to the action that's going to be required to save them."
Ward said it's now up to state lawmakers to come up with the money through the Florida Forever conservation land program to help keep these lands wild.
The expedition team also wants to persuade traffic planners to build wildlife underpasses beneath I-4, which has been done for several other major highways, including Alligator Alley and the new Wekiva Parkway near Orlando.
This latest Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was the group's third trek together. The first expedition in 2012 went 1,000 miles from Flamingo and the tip of the Everglades north to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
The second trip - in 2015 - started out near this current trek, in Osceola County, and traveled northwest across the Florida Panhandle to Pensacola and the Alabama state line.