THIS SERIES BEGAN WITH A QUESTION. It was born from a thought I had while jogging an empty beach along the Gulf the first day I arrived on the Forgotten Coast. The uniqueness of the area had already struck me, obviously and immediately apparent from the beginning. The natural-ness, the ubiquity of the birds on the wing, the wildlife, the native plants—all these things seemed new, experienced in Florida only once before during a trip to the Everglades. My question was simple, but embodied others that came with it in a cascade. Is the Forgotten Coast unique? Is it “natural?” Has development been balanced with a respect for natural environments, for native habitats, for biologically active and unique areas, such as those presented by the biomes of this place? If it is presently—balanced—can this situation be sustained?
Within a few days of looking into these questions I came upon a group of dedicated people publicly raising awareness of the plight of such natural places and, in effect, posing an answer to my query—a conclusion that after 4 weeks of exploring the Forgotten Coast, I arrived at myself. Florida’s Forgotten Coast is, indeed, a critically important natural place. It is a relative island of natural-ness in a sea of peopled expansion. But it is still under threat, as most natural places are—in Florida and throughout the world. The Florida Wildlife Corridor advocates for the protection of critical habitats, natural and relatively untouched places already extant. The group’s message is simple and ultimately pragmatic—we can protect sometimes rare and critically endangered wildlife and the native character of parts of the state simply by recognizing what already exists today. And by not allowing the destruction of what remains.
I was quickly hooked both by the practicality of the group’s mission and their outreach methods. They periodically sponsor “expeditions” across hundreds of miles to bring awareness to the cause, in the vane of conservationist Michael Fay of National Geographic, well-known for his highly publicized “Megatransect” across central Africa a few years ago. Three founders of the group, Carlton Ward, Jr., Mallory Dimmitt, and Joe Guthrie, began their treks in 2012 by following a path inspired by that of a wandering black bear from the Everglades in South Florida to the Okefenokee Refuge along the Florida/Georgia border. More recently, in the winter of 2015, the three headed west from the Everglades headwaters instead of north, and traversed much of the area of the Forgotten Coast. Their expedition continued where the first left off—highlighting the importance of long, connected stretches of relatively open-country for wildlife habitat and biologic (and genetic) diversity. By traveling on foot, bike and kayak they proved that these wildlife corridors already exist, but that they need our continued recognition and protection.
The group raised almost $42,000 through a Kickstarter campaign for the production of a film by Grizzly Creek Films, recording the experience. The resulting documentary, The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida, is beautifully shot and was aired on Tampa Bay’s local PBS station, as well as at environmental film festivals and special showings around the country. It’s currently available on DVD, with wider distribution possible in the future. The Corridor provided me a DVD copy of the film for viewing and review. It does justice to the cause the group tries to promote, and again, is well-shot. My two criticisms of the film, however, concern the fact that very little footage of the actual Forgotten Coast is presented; almost as if the film crew wasn’t present during this leg of the expedition. And from the point of view of a storyteller, the film could do a better job in presenting an emotionally engaging and consistent narrative. It is, however, a loud and clear voice for something important. A standout segment was that highlighting the life and work of Kendall Schoelles, a third generation oysterman from Apalachicola—and hearing the song of conservation sung by someone so close to the tides (in this case unnatural tides) of bounty and want.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor also published a book thoroughly documenting their journey, their motivations and personal experiences, The Forgotten Coast: Florida Wildlife Corridor Glades to Gulf Expedition. It is voluminous, extensive—its pages overflowing with exceptional photography by expedition member Carlton Ward, Jr. It’s an extensive chronicle of the places, people and animals the expedition encountered and includes a foreword by Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam—speaking to the width and breadth of the group’s growing audience, and the appeal of their message. People understand. People want to protect natural places and the powers-that-be are taking notice.
The group is based in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. It happened that I was heading down that way for a few days to visit friends and family, and I was able to make contact with them directly. I sat down for a discussion with the group’s program director, Maddie Southard. Maddie proved to be an eloquent voice for the Corridor’s cause.
She began by explaining that the “corridor” the group has mapped and advocates for consists of almost 15.8 million acres of land they’d like to see in “conservation” from South Florida running along the spine of the state to North Florida, and then westward toward Alabama (and including the Forgotten Coast). The amount of land is notable but a pretty small percentage of Florida’s 37.5 million total. “Conservation” is also a loose term—and does not necessarily imply that all of that land is excluded from human activity. 6 million of the total is private land, not yet fully conserved and at risk of development—tracts the group has identified as potential “missing links.” The Corridor shares many of the same goals as the Florida Forever Program, a state-managed funding program to secure the purchase of important tracts of land when they become available. Since its beginning in 2001, the program has purchased 718,126 acres of land with a little over $2.9 billion—certainly a lot, but the 6 million acres the Corridor has identified is still a much greater figure, and these potential “missing links,” if paved over, could have a pretty drastic and destructive effect on the health of Florida’s natural environment.
Maddie explained that rather than protecting land directly, the Corridor decided that it can most effectively engender change through education and outreach, most prominently through its sponsored expeditions. And these have been popular, well-publicized things. Upwards of 1.6 million people have been exposed to the group’s message and something like 14,000 people have personally heard the message from the expedition members or have seen the film at one of its public showings. And obviously they’re very active on the Web and social media—these being expanding venues in which both the message and the inspiring visual media they’ve produced, can really be showcased. Making photographs, videos available to the public of some of the beautiful places the Corridor is trying to protect is a mission in itself. If people have a personal connection to a place, Maddie says, (if even just inspired from a great photo they’ve seen) they are more likely to want to protect it, to share it with their kids.
During my conversation with Maddie, she referred to the Florida black bear repeatedly and she re-acquainted me with the story of what inspired the Corridor’s first expedition. Joe Guthrie, a bear biologist from Kentucky was part of a study tagging bears with GPS collars a few years ago, enabling the detailed tracking of their movements and migrations across the state. The 2012 expedition attempted to follow the same route a single, specific bear took and successfully proved that a wildlife corridor (albeit one dangerous in places, crossing interstates like I-4 between Tampa and Orlando) already exists. It was startling evidence that animals were using these corridors to travel, seek food, mates. If a corridor already exists, why not follow it? Why not bring awareness to it? Why not protect it?
The story is uniquely appealing to me. It represents the confluence of so many modern themes, some I’d like to really believe in, others I lament: Technology used for good. Disappearing natural habitat. The monstrosity that our civilization sometimes shows itself to be. Hope. Yeah. In the story of that single bear there exists hope. See, it was able to do it. It was able to trek 1000 miles up from the Everglades; to do what its progenitors had been doing for thousands of years before we arrived and built Disney World. It was able to do this despite us, despite our interstates, our golf-courses, our tract housing. Life finds a way. Give it a little room, a little space, and it will adapt and hold its own. This is inherently a balanced and realistic approach to our relationship with the natural world. And it’s all that the Corridor is asking.
Immediately after my interview with Maddie, I drove back up north to the Forgotten Coast. I had another week of exploring to do, but really the questions I’d originally posed had already been answered. The Forgotten Coast isn’t Eden. Circa 2016, however, Eden doesn’t exist anywhere (accept maybe on Mars). What I saw was a place where the natural world might be holding its own for the time being. If not quite in a state of grace, it appeared to exist in a state of balance. And sure, there were un-intentioned reasons for this (like Dark Water, for instance) but also because someone stood up decades ago and said frankly, “You know what? We have plenty. Let’s carve out this section and ensure that there’s space enough for IT.”
And that, someone once said, has made all the difference.
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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