Florida Wildlife Corridor Images Show Natural Beauty

Former Florida Governor "Walkin' Lawton" Chiles earned his moniker by walking from Pensacola to Key West -- sometimes alone, sometimes with ordinary folks. While it may have started as a political gimmick, he later reflected on how the walk allowed him to see Florida's natural beauty -- and problems -- with "fresh eyes."

Inspired by Chiles' idea of a trek across the state to raise awareness, as well as by John Muir and J. Michael Fay, whose narratives of their wilderness experiences encouraged conservation, The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition was conceived.

Now in a photo exhibition at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens' Museum of Botany and the Arts in Sarasota about the expedition, environmental photojournalist and Tampa resident Carlton Ward Jr. captures images reflecting a Florida many never experience. The exhibition continues until November 27 and features 20 original photographs taken along the Florida Wildlife Corridor, including rarely seen plants, endangered animals and habitats.

Accompanying the exhibit is a preview of the upcoming film debuting at the Tampa Bay History Center in early 2013, before being released to PBS stations nationwide. Also included are select images from Ward's Gulf Coast Collection.

Bear biologist Joe Guthrie, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and Ward recently completed a 1,000-mile expedition from Everglades National Park to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia over a 100-day period. The purpose was to raise public awareness and generate support for the Florida Wildlife Corridor project. Through various means, they followed the migration corridor through wildlife habitats, watersheds and participating working farms and ranches of the Corridor.

About half of the Corridor runs through private land and half is protected through conservation easements. Many in agriculture are pressured financially to sell off land to developers. "About 100,000 acres a year," says Ward, often going to long-term international investment groups.

"It is a tenuous balance," says Ward. "Our ranchers and farmers struggling to do things in an environmentally sound way need support and incentives not to sell out to developers."

Economic / Ecologic Value

An eighth-generation Floridian, Ward says Florida has unique challenges, especially with demographics and geography. "The terrain is flat. You have to get out there and see it to experience and appreciate it. I want people to get an expanded sense of place; a visual identity for less seen Florida landscapes."

"If you don't see it, you don't value it," he adds. 
But it isn't just about preserving beauty, although The Florida Nature Trail rivals the Appalachian Trail in Ward's opinion. It's about valuing the need to limit further fragmentation of the natural landscapes and watersheds that span from the Everglades ecosystem north to Georgia that are important to Florida's diverse native wildlife. It's also about sustaining Florida's water supply, food production, economies, and the cultural legacies of working farms and ranches. It is about increased opportunities such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other forms of ecotourism, and giving wildlife and plants room to adapt to a changing climate and sea-level rise.

"Ninety percent of Florida residents live on the coasts or in the Orlando area," says Ward. "There is a disconnect between their perceptions and the real need to restore these connected landscapes because many of them are unaware of them."

Places like the Everglades and Ocala National Forest are becoming islands due to encroaching development. This causes more isolation for wildlife migration, thus upsetting the ecological balance. This was sharply illustrated in an expedition blog entry by Joe Guthrie:

"As we hiked Wednesday we became aware of habitat becoming more narrow as we neared the road. Citrus groves lined either side of a small neck of scrub extending north toward SR 70. We stood at the road edge, pondering all this as a particularly careful bear might. Mid-day traffic flew past us. Finally a gap in the delivery trucks and RVs came, and we scampered across to safety."

The education and awareness campaign visually demonstrates the connection between the landscapes and watersheds. Viewers can "walk" with the team and experience the Corridor vicariously.

Haunting Orchids And The Selby Connection

Halfway through the expedition, Ward got a call from Jeannie Perales, education director for Selby Botanical Gardens. Recognizing a synergy between the Corridor and Selby Gardens' conservation and restoration efforts of endangered plant species in the Everglades and Fakahatchee Strand, he agreed to an exhibit.

"Selby Gardens saw this exhibition as an opportunity to raise awareness for the Corridor and continue the buzz about our own conservation efforts of native plants and the real science that goes on here," says Perales.

Bruce Holst, director of Botany for Selby Gardens, maintains a blog of current projects and updates. The Everglades cultivation of orchids and fern spores, and replanting has been ongoing for the past five years.

Ward was invited to tag along to the Everglades with Holst, Perales and WUSF reporter Steve Newborn, who filmed as they checked on the project's progress. Ward came, camera in hand.

The results of the project were mixed. First the team checked on a mule ear orchid, Trichocentrum undulatum. Holst points out that it is extremely rare in the U.S., but he is please with the success of the orchid. "These plants are rooting in, they're growing, they're doing fantastic," he says.

The Fragrant Maidenhair fern is not fairing as well. The original two plants are surviving but only two out of 24 relocated are surviving.

During the Corridor expedition, Ward captured a photograph of the ghost orchid Dendrophylax lindenii. The haunting image is displayed in the Selby Gardens exhibition. Given the rarity and size of the bloom, it's a wonder Ward captured the image. But the delicate otherworldly flower photographed in Fakahatchee Strand attracts the equally elusive sphinx moth, a precarious balance in nature that underscores the importance of the Corridor.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor grew from a collaborative vision to connect remaining natural lands, waters, working farms, forests and ranches from the Everglades to Georgia, protecting a functional ecological corridor for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds. Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida, and Ward were cofounders of the initiative. Their vision was inspired by the late David Maehr's bear research, and the commitment of his students, Wade Ulrey and expedition team member Guthrie.

Maehr may have said it best. "The ability of a forest to support a bear population is the best evidence that it also provides priceless amenities for people. Such places create clean air, clean water, beautiful scenery, singing birds, a buffer against too many neighbors, and a calm that has been lost with the frenzy of tires and shoes on pavement. They are also a hedge against the sprawl that destroys the reasons people moved here in the first place."

Development and conservation can coexist, says Ward. "We have an opportunity for a statewide strategy supporting the Florida Wildlife Corridor that ensures sustainability for the next 50 years or more. We have a moral and legal obligation to be better stewards of our natural resources."

Sandra Caswell Hice is a freelance writer living in Tampa with two dogs, two cats and husband Joe. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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