Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation: Deep Florida roots inspire conservation mission

“The Last Green Thread’’ is a 2019 film made to create awareness of the urgent need to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an 18-million-acre tract of wilderness that extends from the Florida panhandle to the tip of the Florida peninsula. The continuous stretch of wild Florida allows the panther, black bear and other wildlife the roaming space they need to find food and mates and stay healthy.

In the film, National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation; biologist Joe Guthrie; and environmentalist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt – now CEO of the foundation – explore the thin stretch of wilderness, the green thread, that takes them up Reedy Creek from the headwaters of the Everglades near Kissimmee to the Green Swamp north of Tampa. They travel by foot and canoes and camp nightly during the seven-day, 72-mile trek.

Beauty surrounds the explorers as they move through a wilderness that seems so distant from the bustling megalopolises in the state. Yet in one scene Ward is canoeing along the creek and can hear the sounds of Walt Disney World a mile away. At times, the whoosh of traffic can be heard through the trees.

It was an easy trip compared to the two 1,000-mile journeys the trio took in 2012 and 2015. The long-distance journeys, which lasted months, had viewers saying, “Oh, my gosh, this is Florida?” Ward says. Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation founder Carlton Ward Jr.“We were staying within the corridor the whole time so it could paint the picture that everything is okay and this will be here forever. ‘The Last Green Green Thread’ expedition… intentionally pushed up against those edges to show that this corridor, this other Florida that people were surprised existed, is being squeezed from all sides.’’

The films appear on the foundation’s website and on the WEDU streaming service. “I think they become ambassadors of our cause once they’ve viewed one of these films,” says Dimmitt.

Protecting the corridor

About 10 million acres of the corridor are protected by state or federal governments or by conservation easements signed by private ranchers. The remaining eight million acres are unprotected, and the ongoing effort of conservationists is to buy up or otherwise save that land before it is sold to housing developers and for other uses that would cut off a section of the corridor. That would isolate animals, lead to inner-breeding and declining health of the species, scientists say.

The cause got a big boost in 2021 when the Florida legislature unanimously passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, budgeting $300 million to the effort to protect the corridor in addition to allocating $100 million to the Florida Forever lands acquisition program. The conservationists are happy to note that Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and Speaker-designate Paul Renner publicly back protecting the corridor.

“Our goal is to kind of keep that high level of funding going forward in future years,’’ Dimmitt says. She notes that the rapid growth of the Florida population increases the risk that development will sever the corridor. “We always say it’s a race against time to protect as much as you can as fast as you can.’’

The highest priority this decade, she says, is to permanently preserve some 900,000 acres, much of the land located in thin threads linking the corridor.
One big selling point of preserving the corridor is that its survival is also critical to the well-being of the state’s people.

The corridor contains important watersheds throughout the state, says Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer for the foundation. One example, he notes, is the Green Swamp ecosystem, which feeds the Hillsborough, Peace, Withlacoochee and St. Johns rivers. Clean water upstream reduces the chance of red tide spoiling a tourist season, he says.

Some 114,000 jobs are connected to the Florida Wildlife Corridor remaining as it is, he adds, noting there is a $30 billion annual economic return, which includes the $9 billion eco-tourism industry.

Deep ties to Florida

Ward studied biology and anthropology at Wake Forest University. He took photojournalism and earned a master’s degree in ecology at the University of Florida, writing his thesis on the emerging field of conservation photography. As a National Geographic Explorer, he’s been on varied missions for the magazine. His books include "Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier;" "The Edge of Africa;" and "Path of the Panther: New Hope for Wild Florida."

Dimmitt has a bachelor’s in natural resources from the University of the South and a master’s in environmental management from Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment.

Both come from prominent families that have lived in Florida for generations. Ward’s great-grandfather was Doyle E. Carlton, Florida’s 25th governor (1929-1933). Ward developed his appreciation for the “other Florida” on visits to the family ranch.
Dimmitt’s family has been ranching since the 19th century. Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes and his seven sons started the giant meat business Lykes Bros. Inc. in 1900. Dimmitt worked for the Nature Conservancy and was vice president for strategic development for Lykes Bros. before becoming CEO of the foundation in 2021.

She grew up in Pinellas County. “But as part of the Lykes family I would visit regularly the Lykes ranch in south-central Florida, in Highlands and Glades counties near Lake Okeechobee,’’ she says.Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation CEO Mallory Lykes Dimmitt

“My parents took us on many adventures around Florida and I was able, maybe even from a young age, to kind of contrast that interior of the state to Pinellas County,’’ she says. “I’ve always had an appreciation for Florida’s water, Florida’s rivers and the interior parts of the state, and I think that led to my goal in college to study conservation.”

Ward first became aware of Florida’s wildlife corridor around 2006, he says, when he was photographing Florida’s ranch lands and met Guthrie, who was studying the black bears living on the lands.

“They were using GPS collars to see how they were moving through the landscape. That really opened my mind to wildlife corridors, and I started learning more about them and got connected with a scientist named Tom Hoctor up at the University of Florida, who had been the architect of something called the Florida Ecological Greenways Network,” Ward says. “That is the underlying science of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.”

He says Dimmitt is really a cofounder of the effort because she came in at the beginning, before the nonprofit became the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation.

“The efforts I’ve been leading across the past 15 years have been to basically tell the story of and raise awareness for this ecological greenways network,’’ Ward says. “So we assembled a bunch of partner organizations, Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Florida Wildlife Federation and several others, and I proposed that we name this ecological greenways network or aspects of it the Florida Wildlife Corridor, so that people like my mom, or someone on the coastline, or someone reading a newspaper, would have a more visual sense of what we were talking about.’’

Having a framework of the Florida Wildlife Corridor – a map – was vital in getting the backing of legislators, Ward believes.

“If you’re a decision maker and you’re looking at a spreadsheet that says Florida has this much public land and so-and-so, the reason to do more isn’t as clear,’’ he says. “But when you show it on a map, and you show that between this state park and this national forest we have timberland, and they’re interested in doing a conservation easement, and that connects up the corridor, it makes a whole lot of sense.’’
 
For more information, go to Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation.
To view short documentary films in the series, go to WEDU Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Longer films are available to view and Florida Wildlife Corridor films

 

Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.