Tampa nonprofit Live Wildly wants you to fall in love with Florida Wildlife Corridor

The Florida Wildlife Corridor is becoming better-known thanks to a publicity campaign launched by a group called Live Wildly. That’s good news for the state’s animals and people, conservationists say, because both depend on the corridor remaining intact for their quality of life.

“We want people to fall in love with the corridor, we want people to experience it, all of its riches and things around it,’’ says Jennifer Sissler, chief marketing officer for Live Wildly, which was created and funded by Tampa businessman and philanthropist Arnie Bellini through his Bellini Better World Foundation.

The corridor is an 18 million-acre connection of wilderness, national forests, state parks and private lands that black bears, panthers and other animals roam in order to hunt, forage and find mates. Forty-two federally-listed endangered species are found there. The corridor stretches from the panhandle east, up into Georgia and down the peninsula to the Everglades and Florida Bay. About 10 million acres are conservation lands, protected by federal, state or local government and private land conservation easements that are often held by an individual, family or company. 

“Those private lands are often working lands that are generating income for the local economy,’’ says Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation.

The other 8 million acres are not protected, he says. 

“One of the things that Live Wildly does, and the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation does, is try to help tell the story of these places around the state and these organizations that do such great work,’’ Lauritsen says. “We’re trying to drive interest in funding to the organizations that (spread the) message, that conserve, that buy land, that manage land, that come up with innovative solutions.”

The Florida Legislature last year passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to encourage and promote investment in areas that protect the corridor, and budgeting $300 million for the effort, in addition to $100 million allocated to the Florida Forever lands acquisition program.

With that funding, the Florida Cabinet in March approved the $32 million purchase of 10 properties and conservation easements from the Panhandle down to the Everglades that include seven parcels and approximately 17,000 acres within the corridor. In August, the Cabinet approved a $56 million purchase of nearly 20,000 additional acres in property and conservation easements, including a conservation easement on the sprawling Horse Creek Ranch property in DeSoto and Hardee counties in the Peace River watershed.

Protecting Habitat

Lauritsen says one way he and his colleagues describe the corridor is by what’s in it.

“There are 75 state parks that are connected through the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” Lauritsen says. “It’s a good place to start because in those state parks you have paddling trails, hiking trails and Florida’s fantastic springs, and you’ve got these beaches and places that people go on vacations and on weekends to relax and recreate.’’

In between those state parks are ranch lands and timber lands and other agricultural properties that make up the bulk of the corridor, he says, and there are other spots that are in more of a developed area, with sections of the corridor running around and through neighborhoods.

“Some of the areas that are really important to the corridor don’t necessarily look like state parks,” he says.

Bringing attention to the corridor, conservationists hope, will keep it from becoming disconnected by roads and housing developments. If animals can’t move across the geography and become isolated, the animals may resort to inbreeding, and Lauritsen says lack of genetic diversity makes a population susceptible to disease and mutations.

“So one of the goals and one of the outcomes of having a corridor that’s healthy and connected is that wildlife populations can self-regulate, remain at healthy sustainable levels,’’ he says. “As an example, when you go to the Ocala National Forest and you hope to see a black bear hanging out there, that’s the great place to see black bears. But the black bear population in Ocala is also an important resource for genetics for the Nature Coast. If you go over to the Goethe State Forest or visit Rainbow Springs State Park or the Withlacoochee State Forest, those are places that aren’t large enough to have their own healthy large black bear population. Black bears still can live there, but if you cut the connection off between Ocala National Forest and these other great wild places, then you lose that source of good genetics.”

Economic and quality of life benefits

Another point of persuasion by the corridor promoters is what it does for humans.

“A lot of people don’t recognize the fact that their quality of life is dependent upon a connected ecosystem out their back door,” Lauritsen says.

Their ability to go to the beach and swim in healthy, clean water depends on what happens upstream in the watershed that is part of the corridor connection. The corridor represents really important watersheds throughout the state, he says, noting one example is the Green Swamp ecosystem, which supports the Hillsborough, Peace, Withlacoochee and St. Johns rivers. 

“It’s the green heart of Florida feeding these waterways,” Lauritsen says, adding that it must be protected for tourism to thrive.

“If you’re in restaurant and lodging and you’re depending upon visitors coming in during tourist season and to eat and stay in your facility, then blue-green algae bloom and red tide are issues that affect your bottom line,” he says. “Increasingly you’ll have conversations with folks in restaurant and lodging associations and associated businesses that recognize the connection between whether their reservation lists are backlogged or whether their place is empty; it really depends on whether or not there is red tide or algae bloom somewhere in the state of Florida. It doesn’t have to be in their county, but any press on that can depress visitation and tourism.”

The economies of a number of rural communities depend on the Florida Wildlife Corridor remaining open space, he says. 

“You have 114,000 jobs which are connected to Florida Wildlife Corridor remaining as it is,” Lauritsen says.
There’s an economic return annually of $30 billion, he notes, which includes the $9 billion eco-tourism industry.

Live Wildly campaign encourages Floridians to discover the hiking trails, natural springs and other joys of the corridor so they will indeed fall in love with it.

“With more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, preserving these unprotected areas and positioning nature as a green infrastructure solution for the state is even more urgent,’’ says Arnie founder Bellini in a prepared statement. “Yet few Floridians are aware of the corridor, its impact or the urgency to protect it – and that’s where Live Wildly comes in. When we connect citizens to the corridor through the things they care about most, we capture their hearts and mobilize action.”

Live Wildly held focus groups at the beginning of the campaign, Sissler says, and found that people knew about the places in and around the corridor.
“But they didn’t know that the Florida Wildlife Corridor was a thing," she says. "They loved it, they just didn’t know that they loved it.’’

The publicity campaign started as a soft launch in April on billboard and bus shelter advertisements in Tallahassee, Tampa and West Palm Beach, Sissler says. In July, it rolled out the first television commercial, which has run, at no cost, as public service announcements on television stations in the Tampa Bay area, Sarasota, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Fort Myers and Naples.

 “So we’re getting some amazing pickup,’’ she says.

“Our social media and digital channels have been creating such great traction and we’re hearing inbound from just Florida citizens, mainly on our social media channels,’’ Sissler says. “And folks have been saying how excited they are to see the issue come to life.’’

For more information go to Live Wildly and Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation.

Please read related story How Hurricane Ian can affect Florida Wildlife Corridor.
 

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.