Florida made conservation history by enacting a bill and securing $400 million in funding to help protect the state’s vast network of natural areas.
Known as the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, the legislation passed the Florida State Senate and House unanimously in late April. It was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on the evening of June 29.
The act formally recognizes the existence of the Florida wildlife corridor, an interconnected web of green spaces throughout much of the state that includes forests, swamps, fields, pastures, timberlands, and even the edges of suburbs.
These areas are crucial for the existence of Florida’s rich wildlife, especially wide-ranging species such as Florida panthers, black bears, otters, alligators, and many types of birds. Habitat fragmentation, caused by roads and development, is one of the most critical but least recognized threats to biodiversity.
Along with the bill, the legislature has also earmarked $300 million toward protecting lands within the corridor, which can be used to fund conservation easements on private property or acquire land. That’s in addition to $100 million allocated generally to the main state’s land conservation program, called Florida Forever, which functions similarly, though over a slightly broader geographic area.
The act is also intended to protect agricultural lands from development, to provide for continued recreational access to natural areas, and to safeguard clean water and air. That’s vital in the third most populous state, where an average of nearly a thousand people move every day.
“It’s the best hope we got,” says Cary Lightsey, a sixth-generation cattle rancher who lives near Lake Kissimmee, of the corridor bill. Protecting these lands will “keep our natural resources going, protect our endangered species, and most of all, the landscape.” (Read more: How America’s most endangered cat could help save Florida.)
For an environmental bill to pass with unanimous bipartisan support is unusual in today’s political climate, but it shows that land conservation, and specifically wildlife corridors, can transcend partisan divisions, says Jason Lauritsen, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Coalition.
“It’s an issue of marrying green infrastructure and a healthy ecosystem with vibrant economies,” Lauritsen says.
Many see it as part of a broader evolution in conservation planning, in which people worldwide are increasingly realizing the importance of landscape connectivity, says Tori Linder, a conservationist and managing director with Path of the Panther, an organization supported by the National Geographic Society that works to protect the corridor and helped lead the effort to pass the bill.
Linder says that some other states have made various moves to recognize and protect their wildlife corridors—such as New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia—but none has made this level of investment.
“The bipartisan passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act presents a model for sustainable development nationally, one in which nature and people can thrive together. And that's incredibly exciting,” Linder says.
Defining the corridor
The new law specifies what qualifies to be part of the Florida wildlife corridor. To do so, it uses information from the Florida Ecological Greenways network, a massive collection of data managed by Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida.
That data, which includes animal movements, ecological measurements, habitat type, water availability, and many other factors, helps determine what areas are most needed for wildlife to thrive. In all, the corridor encompasses 18 million acres of land, of which 10 million acres are currently protected.
Many species, including Florida panthers, need corridors to disperse, find mates, and maintain their large home ranges.
These endangered cats nearly went extinct by the 1970s, but bounced back following an infusion of genes from five Texas mountain lions in the 1990s. In 2016, a female was seen north of the Caloosahatchee River, a major waterway that runs from Fort Myers toward Lake Okeechobee, for the first time in 43 years.
This milestone suggests the species is moving north—which it must to survive long-term, a future that’s only possible with protected wildlife corridors.
Beyond panthers, most animals and plants rely, to some degree, upon connected landscapes to disperse and maintain genetic diversity.
The bill’s passing is the culmination of a long quest by Carlton Ward, Jr., a photographer and National Geographic Explorer who founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign in 2010 and Path of the Panther in 2016. In recent years, Ward has explored much of Florida’s wildlife corridor, trekking more than 2,000 miles throughout the state and photographing wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.
“This gives me a lot of hope for the future of land conservation in Florida,” Ward says.
In Florida, where development pressure is intense, ranchers and those working in agriculture often have more in common with environmentalists than in some other states, says Lightsey.
For instance, Lightsey has put more than 90 percent of his ranch in easements. The state pays him about 50 to 60 percent of the land’s appraised value, and in return, the land can never be developed. Easement owners are responsible for managing the land and paying property taxes, though often at reduced rates, and can receive some tax benefits such as deductions.
Lightsey and Hoctor both said the COVID-19 pandemic served as a wake-up call to the state, as many more people have flocked to Florida and to the countryside, putting more strain on rural areas.
“Everybody wants to live in the country [now],” Lightsey says. “It don't look good if we don't get rolling on this real quick.”
But many caution there’s more work ahead. For example, though the bill’s passing is exciting and hopeful, the funding needs to be sustained over time to have a real impact, Hoctor says.
Wilton Simpson, the Republican president of the State Senate—who helped the bill get passed and funded—says he hopes to secure “a similar level of funding” next year as well. “We’re very proud we got this done,” he says.
Meanwhile, developmental pressures are urgent. In 2019 a network of toll roads was proposed, called M-CORES, that would build more than 300 miles of roads cutting through some of the last undeveloped swathes of the state. Though the M-CORES project is on hold, conservationists are concerned new roads such as these or others could lead to further degradation of the land and damage the integrity of the Florida wildlife corridor.
Linder says that although she felt a sense of accomplishment when the corridor bill finally passed, it didn’t last long.
“It's just the beginning of what needs to happen,” Linder says. “Every state needs to work to protect wildlife corridors.”
Jill Tiefenthaler, chief executive officer for the National Geographic Society, concurs. “Hopefully the success of this project will inspire change throughout the country and the world.”
Editor’s note:The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded the work of Explorer Carlton Ward, Jr. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.