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What does the future hold for the Florida Wildlife Corridor in the race against development?

Fog through the eastern sun of the Yahoo Trail. Tiny parts of the corridor may be the most endangered, but conservationists are working with legislators to try to fix that.
Dave Pellar
Fog through the eastern sun of the Yahoo Trail. Tiny parts of the corridor may be the most endangered, but conservationists are working with legislators to try to fix that.

While the stitched-together mass of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, spanning millions of acres including large parts of Seminole County, struggles to remain intact, efforts to protect tiny fraying threads are coming together in potential new legislation. But the push to save the Corridor's little-known side streets in people's backyards is also a race against time.

Officials and conservationists are working to mitigate that unraveling connectivity, with significant opportunities in the works to protect the land, including non-governmental entities proposing new ideas to work in conjunction with developers to create communities that support the Corridor.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2021, aimed to solve the growing concern of key lands being lost to development by allocating $400 million to “encourage and promote investments in areas that protect and enhance” the Florida Wildlife Corridor, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

A map of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Credit Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation
A map of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Corridor’s vital swath of connected land traversing the entire state, from the northwestern edge of the panhandle to the southern tip of the Everglades, is shrinking with every new development built on unprotected land and, despite the money provided by the Act, there are concerns it does not do enough in its current state to provide protections quickly or strongly enough.

This does not mean that nothing will be done to strengthen the Act, though.

State Representative David Smith of Winter Springs said he is looking into ways to improve aspects of the statute, specifically around easements, which, in conservation, are “perpetual, undivided interests in property to protect natural, scenic, or open space values of real property,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“I have some concerns that some of the easements, when properties are put into easement, there’s an expectation that’s in perpetuity,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

“I’m researching the issue to see if an additional tweak to the statute is required,” he said.

There are not expected to be major changes to the Act, especially in the short term, Smith said, but rather potential smaller ones annually to improve it over the coming years.

While the changes may be small, they aren’t the only ways lawmakers are working to ensure land receives protections.

Seminole County officials are focusing development in the already-urban areas of the county, with incentives to developers where infrastructure already exists, and clustering developments away from sensitive lands.

If development is done on more rural land, whether inside or outside the Corridor, developers are incentivized with density bonuses if they put a certain amount of the land into conservation.

Our partners at the Oviedo Community News produced this interactive map illuminating the Wildlife Corridor’s various levels of protection.

Density bonuses are incentives for developers that allow for benefits like the ability to add more units or build higher buildings in exchange for providing an added benefit to the public — in this case, protected land.

“We try to keep any type of proposed development in the rural areas very low intensity, very low density,” Rebecca Hammock, Development Services Director for Seminole County, said. “One of the [other] things that we have implemented to try to promote development in the urban area is through our impact fees, [and] our mobility fee, which is similar to a transportation impact fee.

“If you develop in the rural area, it’s a much higher mobility fee because you have longer trips on the road, you’re having more impacts to the road, but if you’re in an urban area and a denser area, the mobility fees are less,” she said.

Oviedo’s most recent 10-year plan focuses development in its core areas.
Courtesy City of Oviedo
Oviedo’s most recent 10-year plan focuses development in its core areas.

Aiming high, not far

A saying among key stakeholders in this race is “build up, not out.”

“We can’t predict what’s going to happen 50, 60 years from now, but what I can tell you is it’s incumbent upon the current elected officials to ensure that in the core area of the county that we incentivize redevelopment, we incentivize going up instead of out,” Seminole County Commissioner Jay Zembower said.

This means more high-rising buildings, rather than sprawling single-family communities pushing into rural areas. The Lake County Conservation Council is currently asking citizens to sign a land-protection petition that asks county and city governments to disallow high-density development in rural protection areas, Jane Hepting, Lake County Conservation Council president said.

But when county land is annexed, or absorbed, by a bordering city, those protections can be put in jeopardy.

“County protections have to do with density,” she said. “It’s low density, is what the county says, in those areas. But the cities, when they annex, they can take the position [that] those protections don’t apply anymore. And so then they can allow high-density development.”

Additionally, it is possible for other counties, especially ones with less sprawl, to put their own version of Seminole’s rural boundary - which prevents higher-density development from moving eastward into the rural parts of the county - into place. And they’re focusing even more on which properties to acquire.

An idea Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, has proposed is called Corridor-Compatible Communities, which focuses on encouraging wildlife flow through specially designed developments.

According to a presentation by Lauritsen published in Sept. 2023, the Corridor-Compatible Community idea has four guiding principles:

  1. “Guide responsible development and management of land in a manner which sustains local wildlife populations and their habitat needs.” 
  1. “Jointly plan development and conservation together, respecting core conservation areas, allowing for the provision of connected wildlife corridors and decreased fragmentation.” 
  2. “Strengthen the middle tier of land conservation, which offers the greatest potential for better integration of human development with wildlife habitat needs.” 
  3. “Reduce environmental impacts of land development while simultaneously protecting the rights of property owners, and enable development of high quality projects.” 

“The middle tier of land conservation initiatives focuses on creating regional and community-wide green infrastructure to promote conservation within large landholdings, large developments, and neighborhoods,” according to not-for-profit advocacy organization 1000 Friends of Florida.

A hawk grooms itself in a tree in the Econ River Wilderness Area.
Dave Pellar
A hawk grooms itself in a tree in the Econ River Wilderness Area.

The battle to build awareness

The Corridor Foundation has worked with about 40 different organizations throughout the state to develop the guidelines, and the plan is to proactively seek out specific areas that are most in need of saving.

“In order to really be effective, you have to go do your proverbial knocking on doors and letting folks know that these tools and resources are available,” Lauritsen said.

While the Foundation is not planning on doing things like putting up signage that points out when someone is in the Corridor, they are in favor of individual landowners or conservation properties putting signage up that tells others they are in the Corridor.

The reason for this?

“It’s something that we want to make sure [that the Corridor land] isn’t seen as the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation’s, or seen as just the Florida state parks,” he said. “It’s got to be the public’s [land].”

Being “the public’s land” will give it the appearance of more impact, he said.

There are criticisms of the Corridor program that Lauritsen hears “regularly,” among them that, while the Act passed, it does not have actual regulatory ability.

Lauritsen said he is told that the program is “all carrot, no stick.”

“There’s no statewide statutory stick,” he said. “[But] people are going to recognize the value of it when it comes up for an [Acquisition and Restoration Council] application for Florida Forever or for rural and family lands or for one of the county land acquisition programs. People can point to that ecological value as one more reason to purchase this piece instead of spend the money in some other way. So there’s incentive there.”

The $400 million funding allocated in the statute is vital for the Corridor’s survival, Lauritsen said. And while the funding is often used for state-wide acquisitions, much of the key decision making will come at the local level with individual planning departments, he added.

“Our Foundation has intentionally chosen to not weigh in or drive a regulatory approach statewide to the Corridor,” he said. “There are more than a dozen critical places in the state where there’s rapid growth and there’s concern about losing connection in the Corridor in some of those places. There’s local leadership and county folks who recognize and work with growth and manage growth and are proactively protecting those things.”

While there may be more the Corridor Foundation could do in terms of public education, regulatory impact and laying out which lands should be priorities, those in conservation have seen direct benefits from it, such as the Yarborough acquisition.

The marked area shows how the acquisition of the Yarborough Ranch acreage closed off a key area of the Florida Wildlife Corridor to future development.
Map rendering by Ana Orvieto
The marked area shows how the acquisition of the Yarborough Ranch acreage closed off a key area of the Florida Wildlife Corridor to future development.

The Yarborough Ranch’s remaining 1,361 acres, which sit directly in the Corridor, were purchased by the state’s Florida Forever program. Officials said the visualization of the Corridor helped show officials why the land was so vital to save.

“I think it’s a wonderful program because it will allow wildlife to travel without being killed on the highways so much,” Hepting said. “It’s a way for them to move and eat and survive in Florida without trying to survive in crowded neighborhoods or on crowded roads, which is bad news for everybody.”

The large-scale vision of the Corridor is a big reason those in conservation look at it as a positive, despite it not having regulatory abilities itself.

“We can’t save all the little patches of land here and there, but I think our focus is to save the really key conservation lands that align with the Corridor,” Phyllis Hall, president of the Seminole Audubon Society, said. “It’s various entities contributing toward purchasing land for the Corridor.”

A gopher tortoise strolls through the Econ River Wilderness Area.
Dave Pellar
A gopher tortoise strolls through the Econ River Wilderness Area.

Playing the long game

Some involved are not sure how the race will turn out, however, as development continues daily, and threatens the lands waiting to be protected throughout the Corridor.

But is the Florida Wildlife Corridor doing its job? Can it do more? Is it succeeding?

“I don’t know if it’ll succeed or not,” Bear Warriors United attorney Lesley Blackner said. “I think it’s a noble effort.”

A race against time and money is one that could be difficult to gauge, but others in the thick of it have hope.

“I’m pretty sure that we’re going to win,” Lauritsen said.

But what does winning actually look like when development cuts into key conservation areas?

“Viable populations of our native wildlife, recovered populations of the threatened, endangered species, clean water downstream, clean air, a productive agricultural economy,” Morris said. “Those are wins.”

For the Corridor itself, it means playing the long game and looking forward.

“[It] means a connected Corridor that functions for future generations,” Lauritsen said. “I think we’re going to be able to save, I think we’re going to be able to be proud of what we’ve saved because of the effort we’re putting in. And I say that in part because of how the effort so far has been embraced.

“It crosses the political divide,” he said. “I think everyone from traditional conservation organizations, your environmentalists that you often think about when you think about causes like this, to the hunting and angling communities and ranchers and veterans. It is just universally embraced.”

Blackner agrees that it does not matter what side of the political divide someone may land on when it comes to conservation.

“I haven’t met any Democrats or Republicans who say, ‘oh yeah, I want dirty water, I don’t want any natural spaces left for my children or my grandchildren,’” she said. “I actually think there’s a huge support across party lines, and I don’t like to see environment politicized. I think it’s a matter of public health.”

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