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CONVERSATIONS: A first-ever summit for the Florida Wildlife Corridor

Photo courtesy Everglades National Park
Photo courtesy Everglades National Park

Florida conservationists are gathering this week in Orlando for a first-ever Florida Wildlife Corridor Summit.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor is like a quilt of interconnected natural lands like national parks and state forests that together span more than 40% of the state.

WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green talked with conservationist Carlton Ward about the effort to preserve these lands. 

GREEN: Carlton Ward, you've traveled throughout the Florida Wildlife Corridor. What are these lands like?

WARD: A lot of these lands are like what you would imagine: beautiful, intact wild places like your state parks and your national wildlife refuges and your state forests. Others are things you might not expect, like a cattle ranch or working pine forest. But they all have their place in kind of holding this network of land together.

GREEN: Last year, state lawmakers approved the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, aimed at preventing the fragmentation of these lands. What effect has the measure had on the Florida Wildlife Corridor?

WARD: The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act has been really unifying. It brought a unanimous bipartisan vote in the Florida Legislature, and it inspired an increased investment in land protection.

So in the previous year, we had had $100 million for Florida Forever, which is quite an uptick even from the year before.

Inspired by the Florida Wildlife Corridor idea, and by seeing the vision on the map, lawmakers invested $400 million in land protection last year, and just approved another $400 million this year. So it's really helped show the urgency and the possibility that the corridor provides.

GREEN: Can you talk about why the Florida Wildlife Corridor is important, and what does it need most?

WARD: You might think about the wildlife corridor being important for wide-ranging animals like a black bear or a panther. And that's certainly true because these animals have really big home ranges. A single male panther has a home range of up to 200 square miles. That's four times the size of Miami.

So the only way a panther is going to have enough habitat -- except for the rare exception of a wild public place like Big Cypress National Preserve -- it's going to be a combination of adjacent lands working together as one.

But the wildlife are just kind of showing us what we need to do to protect this land for ourselves. The Florida Wildlife Corridor forms the headwaters of so many of Florida's rivers and watersheds.

Take the Green Swamp, for example, between Orlando and Tampa. It's the headwaters of four major rivers, and it provides a lot of the drinking water for our region.

So maybe we decide to save that place for bears or for other wildlife. But by doing that, we're saving those environmental services that we all depend on.

GREEN: What's next for the Florida Wildlife Corridor?

WARD: We have a lot of work to do to make this vision real. It's been a huge first step having the Florida Wildlife Corridor recognized in state law. That gives us a shared framework and a common goal.

But there's that 8 million acres of opportunity area, and it's a race against time because 1,000 people a day are still moving here. We could be losing 100,000 acres or more to development every single year.

So we need to really stay focused and accelerate the pace of conservation so that we can effectively steer that development in closer to urban cores and achieve this balance that I think the Florida Wildlife Corridor can provide.

The solutions for saving the Florida Wildlife Corridor, it also means the preservation of working lands. So that's helping a cattle ranch stay a cattle ranch or helping a pine forest stay a pine forest.

So it's not all going to be public land. It's going to be probably a half-half mix of working agricultural lands that are compatible with wildlife, holding together the fabric of these other public lands and preserves that we all enjoy.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.