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Expedition team’s cross-state trek ends here

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team reached Ocean Pond in west Baker County last week after embarking from the southern tip of the Everglades and heading north last Photographer Carlton Ward Jr. (right) presents FDEP Secretary Hershel Vinyard with map of the envisioned Florida Wildlife Corridor.January.

Its goal: travel 1000 miles in 100 days to highlight the state’s natural resources and ongoing efforts to “re-connect and restore the fragmented lands and waters in Florida.”

The state’s natural landscape and water flow has been altered through more than a century of development and the expedition aims to showcase lands already protected while identifying where additional conservation is needed.

The team is documenting the expedition online with photographs, videos and social media updates, all accessible from the expedition’s website  www.floridawildlifecorridor.org.

The expedition team arrived at Ocean Pond the evening of April 12 and met with Florida Department of Environmental Protection [FDEP] Secretary Herschel Vinyard at Olustee Battlefield the following morning.

The expedition’s filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus recorded an interview with the secretary, who was then presented with a poster-sized illustration of Florida and the expedition route. The poster also displays the tracts of land needed to enhance the existing corridor for the benefit of wildlife and the state’s ecology.

The creation of wildlife corridors or “ecological greenways” has taken place in recent decades, but largely at the regional or county level, which has resulted in a patchwork of public and private conservation lands with limited connectivity in some areas.

Secretary Vinyard joined the expedition team — which consists of conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, biologist Joe Guthrie, photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. and Mr. Stoltzfus — on a 4-mile hike from the state park in Olustee to their Ocean Pond campsite after sharing breakfast with the group.

“I’m excited about being with the team today,” said Mr. Vinyard. “They’ve done a great job raising public awareness about what a fantastic job that the state and our partners have done in conserving land. Like I was telling them earlier, we just need to do a better job of telling folks to get out from behind their TV sets and get into the environment.”

Hear full interviews with Ms. Dimmitt, Mr. Stoltzfus, Sec. Vinyard and Mr. Guthrie here.

The team’s stay in Olustee lasted longer than the trip’s usual breaks, one day of rest for each week of travel, due to the roughly 35,000-acre County Line Fire and the team’s plan for a follow-up event at the Olustee Depot the morning of April 16.

“The fire has burned through the route we had planned in the Pinhook [Swamp] so now we’re under the advisement of the forest service on how to move forward,” said Ms. Dimmitt the morning of April 13.

The team arrived in Olustee after traveling along the Florida Trail between the Ocala National Forest and Osceola National Forests, also known as the “O2O” corridor.

The corridor itself is continuous, but some sections are “pinched” and more at risk than others, said Ms. Dimmitt. The stretch between Lawtey and Starke, for instance, needs larger buffers between the corridor and development.

“We were more in houses, subdivisions, crossing a major road [301],” she said. “It was less easy to route through natural land than other places in the corridor, and we’ve had a couple of areas where that is the case.”

The final leg of the journey will head north through the Osceola forest to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. The team intends to explore the refuge and participate in the Earth Day activities on April 21 to close the expedition.

Looking back on the trip thus far, Mr. Stoltzfus said it’s not the scenery or animals he found the most amazing. It’s the people he met.

“Of course, we’re interested in the landscapes and wildlife and all that, but I’ve been really impressed by the kind of people we’ve met all across Florida, whether they’re biologists, researchers, ranchers, farmers or just people who say, ‘We love Florida and we want to see this heritage continue.’ It’s not just the support that the expedition has gotten, but the whole idea of the corridor. Floridians want this, they really do.”

To read the full story, see this week's print e-edition or subscribe to the e-edition here.

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