Motorists zipping along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando can’t see from their ribbon of asphalt how close they are to the wild side of Florida.
But the Green Swamp is all around.
Often called the “liquid heart” of the state, the swamp is headwaters for four major rivers: Peace, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha and Hillsborough.
Natural habitat, hiking trails, blueways and wildlife corridors spread across Polk, Lake, Sumter, Hernando and Pasco counties.
“This is wild Florida history in plain site,” said Carlton Ward Jr., a conservation photojournalist whose photographic art captures the beauty of the state’s wild side and its Cracker history of cowboys and ranches.
On Sept. 15, more than 100 people filled the Selby Auditorium on the campus of Saint Leo University for a presentation on the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expeditions, in 2012 and 2015.
Saint Leo’s School of Arts and Sciences, departments of Language Studies and the Arts, and Mathematics and Science sponsored the event.
“He is a very accomplished speaker, combining words and pictures that allow us to hear clearly the importance of conservation,” said Mary Spoto, the dean of Arts and Sciences. “It’s something good for our students to hear and also the public.”
The first expedition of 1,000 miles in 100 days traversed peninsular Florida from the Everglades National Park to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia.
The most recent expedition of 1,000 miles in 70 days began in January, following a path from central Florida, across the Panhandle to Alabama, ending at the Gulf Island National Seashore. Along the way “trail mixers” were held to invite the public to join in the trek.
The goal is to bring awareness about the need to protect and connect Florida’s rural lands, its waterways and the natural paths to habitats traveled by Florida’s diverse wildlife, including the Florida black bear and the Florida panther.
Ward sees his photographs as a way to connect art’s inspiration with science’s knowledge.
He collaborated with bear biologist Joe Guthrie and environmentalist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt on the “Florida Wildlife Expedition Corridor,” a book chronicling the 2012 expedition. A second book on the 2015 expedition will be published in November.
“I’ve always had a connection to conservation,” Ward said.
But he didn’t think of Florida first as his focus.
As a graduate student, he traveled on the first of nine trips to central and western Africa. But each time he came home, he noticed Florida’s changing landscape.
“There was a part of Florida that I knew was missing,” Ward said.
He began photographically to tell the story of Florida’s conservation through its cattle ranches, handed down through generations. He published “Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier” in 2009.
That multigenerational stewardship kept some of Florida’s wildlife habitats intact, said Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian.
“Some of the ranchers I’ve met are some of the best conservationists I know,” Ward said.
It was once possible, he said, to hike and camp for two to three nights without seeing a fence. But Florida’s population, which numbered about 2 million in the 1940s, is now about 20 million. Pressures from development are increasing, Ward said.
Research on the Florida black bear in 2010 revealed the disconnects along the wildlife corridors and the vast distances that are traveled during a life cycle.
A black bear, tagged with a GPS tracking collar and known as M34, went on a 500-mile walkabout through Florida from Sebring to nearly the Green Swamp in the Orlando area. The bear halted at I-4, in a location, where other species ended up as road kill trying to cross over to what should be natural habitat for bears.
But Ward said, “That bear couldn’t find a safe path to get there.”
Instead, it retreated southward somewhere near Fort Myers, where the collar automatically dropped off.
Ward remains optimistic, however, about the future.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Ward said. “We can accommodate a lot of people and sustain natural corridors.”
Wildlife underpasses and overpasses, for example, can preserve natural pathways and keep corridors connected.
“It’s not just about buying land,” he said. “It’s about incentivizing compatible land uses.”
His optimism springs also from the heroes he has met on the expeditions.
M.C. Davis, who died recently, created the Nokuse Plantation, which contains the largest pine leaf forest in the southeastern United States. Davis acquired more than 50,000 acres for his pine leaf restoration project, which borders Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle.
Davis partnered with Eglin and the Florida Department of Transportation to build three wildlife underpasses on U.S. 331.
Another hero is Kendall Schoelles, a third-generation oysterman. “That man is committed to a life from generations past,” Ward said.
In 2016, Ward said he would continue to focus efforts on preserving the wildlife corridor. One issue for Ward and other environmentalists is Amendment 1, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014. The constitutional amendment potentially could bring $700 million in real estate taxes into the state’s coffers to acquire conservation land.
However, lawmakers stirred controversy when they approved a budget with $88 million earmarked for land purchases.
“We have to stay loud about it for sure,” Ward said.
For information on the expeditions and the Florida Wildlife Corridor, visit FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org.
Published September 23, 2015