Environment
5:02 am
Sun April 22, 2012

Expedition Seeks To Save Florida's 'Terra Incognita'

Originally published on Sun April 22, 2012 12:16 pm

Members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition sport calluses and legs hardened by three months of hiking through saw grass, palmetto stands and piney woods.

On Sunday, these four adventurers mark the end of a 1,000-mile trek across Florida, from the tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp.

That might have been the easy part. Their next goal is to create a continuous corridor for wildlife running the length of the state. By documenting their journey, they hope to draw attention to the shrinking habitats and remind Floridians of their connection to the environment.

Passing Through Florida's Wild Spaces

One recent morning of their journey began at Hopkins Prairie Campground, deep in the Ocala National Forest, with the sounds of sandhill cranes taking flight. As the sun rose through the fog, Carlton Ward Jr. took it all in.

"I try not to miss a sunrise, if I can help it," he said.

Ward, the expedition leader, had his camera and was trying to get just that right shot.

"It's very rewarding, and very frustrating at the same time. Because in order to capture the essence of some of these places, it takes more than the few hours we have passing through," he said. "So I am getting a few good photographs. I'm also getting a pretty long list of places I want to revisit."

The team — expedition members Joe Guthrie, Elam Stoltzfus and Mallory Lykes Dimmitt — has seen a lot in the past few months. Ward recalled slogging for days through the heart of the Everglades on kayak.

"We pushed on into the night, so we had about two hours in the dark, following the line, kind of flying by instruments on the GPS," he said. "I ran over two alligators that nearly threw me out of my kayak. You couldn't quite tell what was coming around each corner."

A Natural Lifeline

Development in Florida is squeezing wildlife into increasingly narrow ribbons of green space.

Wildlife corridors, which connect wildlife habitats, have been proposed for states as different as California and New Jersey. There's even a transnational one planned to stretch from Yukon to Yellowstone.

But do they really help to heal fragmented landscapes?

"All the study that's been done so far has been typically at very small scales, and only looking at very short-term animal movement," says Paul Beier, a conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University.

"What's yet to be known is whether the longer corridors — on the scale of miles — will, over the long term, promote gene flow and allow things like animals to recolonize areas," he says.

What may be more practical, Beier says, is a system of shorter connections. They would allow wildlife to roam between parks and natural areas.

The Unknown Florida

Back in Ocala National Forest, Ward says half the battle is just educating Floridians on the ranches, swamps and beauty of natural Florida. With almost 19 million people mostly living on the coast, he says a connection with the state's interior is lost.

"At the same time, most of our water, wildlife and food come from this interior area," he says. "So it has tremendous importance to everyone living out along the coasts. But in many ways, it's still terra incognita in their minds."

Ward says publicizing that "unknown land" in the minds of the state's movers and shakers is their next mission.

Copyright 2013 WUSF-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wusf.usf.edu/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, imagine walking a thousand miles across the state of Florida. Well, four people have done just that, and today marks the end of their journey. They are members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition and they've gone from the tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. They've calluses and legs hardened by three months of hiking through sawgrass and piney woods. They risked their lives walking across two interstates, but that might have been the easy part. As Steve Newborn of member station WUSF reports, their next goal is creating a continuous corridor for wildlife running the length of the state.

STEVE NEWBORN, BYLINE: On a recent morning at Hopkins Prairie campground, deep in the Ocala National Forest, the day is greeted with the sounds of sandhill cranes taking flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANDHILL CRANES CAWING)

NEWBORN: As the sun rises through the fog, Carlton Ward Jr. takes it all in.

CARLTON WARD JR.: I try not to miss a sunrise, if I can help it.

NEWBORN: Ward, the expedition leader, has his camera and is trying to get just that right shot.

JR.: It's very rewarding, very frustrating at the same time. Because in order to capture the essence of some of these places, it takes more than the two hours we have passing through. So, I am getting a few good photographs. I'm also getting a pretty long list of places I want to revisit.

NEWBORN: The team has seen a lot in the past few months. Ward recalls slogging for days through the heart of the Everglades on kayak.

JR.: We pushed on into the night, so we had about two hours in the dark, following the line, kind of flying by instruments on the GPS. Man, I ran over two alligators that nearly threw me out of my kayak. And you couldn't quite tell what was coming around each corner.

NEWBORN: Development in Florida is squeezing wildlife into narrower and narrower ribbons of green space. Wildlife corridors have been proposed for states as different as California and New Jersey. There's even a trans-national one planned to stretch from Yukon to Yellowstone. But do they really help to heal fragmented landscapes? Paul Beier is conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University.

PAUL BEIER: All the study that's been done so far has done at typically very small scales, and only looking at very short-term animal movement. What's yet to be known is whether the longer corridors - on the scale of miles - will over the long term promote gene flow and allow things like animals to recolonize areas.

NEWBORN: What may be more practical, Beier says, is a system of shorter connections. They would allow wildlife to roam between parks and natural areas.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NEWBORN: Back at the lake in Ocala National Forest, Ward says half the battle is just educating Floridians on the ranches, swamps and beauty of natural Florida.

JR.: We have nearly 19 million people, most of those people are living along the coastlines, two-thirds of those people weren't born in Florida. And so there's not necessarily a sense of place or a sense of identity that relates to interior Florida. At the same time, most of our water, wildlife and food come from this interior area. So it has tremendous importance to everyone living along the coasts - but in many ways is still terra incognita in their minds.

NEWBORN: He says publicizing that unknown land in the minds of the state's movers and shakers is their next mission. For NPR News, I'm Steve Newborn in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.