an aerial view of Coldwater Creek flowing through pine forests and sandy banks in the Florida panhandle

The quest to protect the Florida wildlife corridor gains ground

After passing a law to conserve wildlife corridors, the state has begun to acquire and protect land where iconic creatures such as Florida panthers roam.

Coldwater Creek flows through pine forests in the Florida panhandle. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, passed in 2021, has helped the state expand protection and restoration of the largest contiguous swath on longleaf pine forest left on Earth.

Florida has long been a land of steamy swamps, great pine and cypress forests, and expansive prairies, where black bears, gopher tortoises, and endangered Florida panthers still roam wild.

But the state’s human population, which is growing by more than a thousand people each day on average, threatens the future of these wild spaces and species.

To protect the land, animals, and humans’ quality of life, state officials and conservationists have been working to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a green network of open spaces stretching through the state that includes wild landscapes, pastureland, citrus groves, and the outskirts of suburbs. Maintaining habitat is crucial for the genetic health of wide-ranging creatures such as panthers and the environment’s ecological functionality.

In June 2021, the Florida State Senate and House unanimously passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which formally designated much of the state’s land as part of this ecological network, and set aside $400 million to protect it from development. (Learn more: Florida enacts sweeping law to protect its wildlife corridors.)

Since then, the state has acquired land or purchased conservation easements—which permanently prevent a property from being developed—on more than 56,000 acres (80 square miles) of land, an area larger than the District of Columbia. The funding, about $140 million, was provided by state, local, and federal agencies.

On August 23, state officials agreed to protect seven more properties, totaling nearly 20,000 acres. These landscapes, which range from ranches, pasturelands, and other agricultural areas to parts of forests, provide habitat and space for imperiled wildlife to range. They’re also vital for recreation, limiting nutrient and fertilizer runoff—which can cause algal blooms—and safeguarding drinking water supplies, says Tori Linder, a conservationist and managing director with Path of the Panther, an organization supported by the National Geographic Society. Furthermore, open spaces help slow down fast-moving water, allowing it to percolate into aquifers instead of swiftly flowing into the ocean.

While celebrating the progress, conservationists note that even more funding and protection is needed to maintain the links in the corridor that are expected to be lost to development in the next decade, says National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward, a photographer and conservationist.

Monumental developments and subdivisions, such a 45,000-acre project in Collier County, continue to move forward in Florida panther habitat.

Losing important conservation lands to development “makes us realize we need to be aggressive … in protecting green infrastructure,” says Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton, and it “underpins the importance of doubling down on our partnerships and [investments] to bring properties into the fold.”

Around a million acres of land in the Florida Wildlife Corridor need to be protected by 2030 to maintain its ecological functionality and connectivity for wildlife, according to an economic study published in February 2022 to which Linder contributed.

Room to roam

Many of the properties that are now a part of the corridor are working ranches and pastures interspersed with trees and stream-side habitat. Well-managed pasturelands represent one of the best human uses of land since they provide vital habitat for many types of wildlife, says Julie Morris, director of the Florida Conservation Group, a state-based nonprofit.

Her group worked with the state, a private landowner, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to protect a large ranch along Horse Creek, a tributary of the Peace River. This vital waterway in southwestern Florida provides drinking water to more than a million people and flows into Charlotte Harbor, an area that serves as a nursery for many fish species and marine mammals, including manatees.

“The owners have done a phenomenal job managing this property—it’s almost jaw-dropping that this land exists,” Morris says, speaking of the area’s pine flatwoods, bottomland forests, and prairies.

At more than 16,000 acres, this is the largest ranch of its kind to be protected in the Peace River corridor. Morris hopes the easement will “inspire even more funding for the area and a catalyst for other landowners to conserve their properties,” she says.

To be considered for an easement, owners must go through a vetting process to evaluate the natural resources on their land and how they’re managed. Under the terms of the purchase, the owner agrees to certain management conditions in perpetuity, usually designed to maintain the ecological health of the landscape.

Many of the properties provide habitat and mobility for Florida panthers, an endangered population of mountain lions that almost went extinct by the 1970s, which have rebounded and now number around 200 individuals. For much of the last generation, the big cats have been mostly confined to areas south of the Caloosahatchee River, a waterway that flows west from Lake Okeechobee toward the Fort Myers area.

But in recent years, a few have been seen to the north, including females, which don’t roam as far as males and whose mobility limits the species’ expansion. To survive, the cats need to continue moving north to reclaim old territory. (Learn more: How America’s most endangered cat could help save Florida.)

Some of the properties preserved in the last year are vital for panther movement, such as Chaparral Slough, protected by a conservation easement. This bit of ranchland to the northeast of Labelle, Florida, measuring 11 miles long and one mile wide, provides connectivity between protected areas south of the river and areas to the north where panthers have been spotted recently, including Fisheating Creek, where state panther biologist Brian Kelly says he saw a female panther.

This property, owned by a local family, has been on a waiting list to be protected for decades, says Lindsay Stevens, who oversees land acquisition and policy for the Nature Conservancy in Florida. The funding and momentum of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act helped make this possible, she says.

Another property, called the Crippen Ranch, is a 615-acre property currently used for agriculture and recreational hunting. It’s adjacent to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, which consists of grasslands that once covered much of the state—and which well-managed ranches help preserve, says Traci Deen, president and CEO of Conservation Florida, the group that helped arrange the easement on the parcel. This parcel and adjoining areas are home to grasshopper sparrows, one of the most endangered birds in the state.

Most of the recently protected properties are located in south-central and southwestern Florida, though two of them consist of forests in the Panhandle, home to swallow-tail kites and black bears. The Department of Environmental Protection and its “Florida Forever” program is the source of funding for many of the easements and acquisitions, along with the state’s Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Rural and Family Lands Protection Program. Some federal and regional agencies, including local water districts, have also chipped in.

Field and stream

Protecting land in the headwaters of the Everglades, a vast territory that extends from Orlando in the north to much of South Florida, is a particular focus for conservationists because such land allows water to flow southward. This hydrological connectivity has been severely cut in the last century, though officials are working to undo past mistakes and protect more land from development.

One example is the recent restoration of the Kissimmee River. The project was led by the Army Corps of Engineers and restored the waterway to its natural pathway over the course of more than 30 miles. The effort took some 30 years and cost more than a billion dollars.

“We need to accelerate the pace of conservation to a rate of 10,000 acres per month to keep up with development and ensure the Corridor is connected,” Linder says. Such a rate is possible. In 2008, before the Great Recession, more land than that was being protected each month.

Such numbers can be reached again, conservationists say.

“I think now we are experiencing a lot of momentum and excitement and optimism about the opportunity to conserve a functional corridor,” Deen says.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct size of Horse Creek Ranch. It is more than 16,000 acres.

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