Conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, biologist Joe Guthrie and photographer Carlton Ward Jr. sat secluded while eating lunch in the back room of a Tallahassee restaurant on Thursday, unaware that rain that had begun pouring down outside.
A week earlier they would have been out in the weather while hiking, bicycling, paddling and camping on a 1,000-mile trek across Florida to highlight the need for more land conservation.
On Thursday, though, the trio — all in their 30s — were in Tallahassee hiking the halls of the state Capitol, meeting with legislators to talk about their trip as an appetizer for their main course on land conservation.
“I was heartened by how many people were appreciative of our trek and the effort,” Dimmitt said. “We had a little bit of a sense of entrée in that we’d just walked across these areas.”
THE TREK AND AMENDMENT 1
In 2012, the same three plus nature documentary filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus covered 1,000 miles from the Gulf Coast in Everglades National Park to the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in South Georgia. They called their journey the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition.
This year, they launched Jan. 10 from the Green Swamp with U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink to see them off along with family and friends.
Along the way they were joined by guests including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, state parks director Donald Forgione, philanthropists M.C. and Stella Davis and Rep. Matt Caldwell, who camped with them for two nights. They ended their trip March 19 near Pensacola at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
On Thursday at the Capitol, before lunch they had met with legislators including Sens. Wilton Simpson and Darren Soto and Reps. Ben Albritton, Jim Boyd, Caldwell and Jason Brodeur. They were scheduled to meet later with Rep. Richard Corcoran, speaker-designate in 2016.
The trekking trio arrived in Tallahassee amid debate over how much to spend on land acquisition after voter approval in November of Amendment 1. The measure provides $741.2 million for water and land conservation in fiscal 2015-16.
“They want to make sure we spend the right amount,” Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers, said Thursday. He added that the House “is in the ballpark” of the $170 million requested by environmental groups for the Florida Forever land-buying program. That’s open to argument, though.
Caldwell said the House is providing $150 million for land acquisition (through bonding) but environmentalists say much of that could go towards water projects rather than land-buying. The Senate provides $2 million for Florida Forever plus $20 million for Kissimmee River restoration land-buying.
Environmentalists have said both budgets ignore the intent of voters who supported Amendment 1.
Last week, Sen. Alan Hays, a Republican from Umatilla, pointed out that federal, state and local agencies own 9.4 million acres, which is about 27 percent of Florida.
“My question is, how much is enough? You know, nobody yet has answered that question,” he said.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team’s answer:
“Follow the Florida Forever list,” said Ward, great-grandson of the late Gov. Doyle Carlton.
“The Florida Forever (purchase) list tells us the highest priorities for conservation,” he said.
There are 2.2 million acres on the Florida Forever list, Dimmitt said, including 1.1 million acres within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. They hiked through those areas owned by the public and through others on the state’s purchase list.
HARD TIMES AND GOOD TIMES ON THE TRAIL
During their 70-day trek they spent more than 40 nights sleeping in tents but stayed as guests in the homes of supporters on other nights. They paddled and bicycled about 400 miles each and hiked another 200 miles.
They woke up with ice covering their tents three nights in a row in the Apalachicola National Forest. It seemed to rain more this year than in past winters, Dimmitt said.
They also have their favorite memories.
Ward remembers a foggy morning paddling on a creek in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge early in the trip.
“You are really wrapped up in the wild at that point because it’s all around you,” he said.
Guthrie remembered hiking through the expansive longleaf pine forest along the Florida Trail at through Blackwater River State Park and the adjacent Blackwater River State Forest.
“Spring is really now happening,” he recalled thinking at the time. “There is a little bit of a drizzle but it’s warm … there are big Atlantic white cedar trees and white sand curves at bends in the river.”
“It was a beautiful time and realization here is this expansive span of longleaf pine, the largest left in the world.”
That pine forest, home to a rare wildlife and plant community, is being protected and restored from Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach through the Blackwater River area to Conecuh National Forest in Alabama.
NOT A ‘PUBLIC LAND-GRAB’
That’s what the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is about, Ward said — promoting the strategy behind the conservation projects on the Florida Forever list.
“Those aren’t there just as some public land-grab,” Ward said in unprovoked response to critics of state land buying. “Those are there because they need to be protected from development for the benefit of all Floridians.”
“We as a community of conservationists,” Guthrie said, “have an organized view of where this can take place. It’s not just a scatter-shot, willy-nilly, get-everything-and-protect-it-or-lock-it-up.”
Corridors can be protected not just through buying land, he said, but through varied conservation ownerships, public-private partnerships, water projects and conservation easements involving the purchase of development rights while land remains in private ownership.
Those conservation strategies “protect the quality of life for Florida — for people as much as anything else,” Guthrie said.
Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.