By STEVE NEWBORN
WUSF Public Media
SEBRING — A trio of conservationists trotted off on horseback into the woods of Highlands Hammock State Park on Sunday for the first leg of a seven-day journey to travel a natural pathway that connects two major preserved areas of Florida.
It’s the latest trek for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, which has already gone on a pair of 1,000-mile journeys across Florida. Their aim is to publicize the need to connect natural migration pathways before they’re lost forever to development.
Tampa nature photographer Carlton Ward Jr. cradled his toddler, Carlton III, on horseback just before they left Highlands Hammock State Park —- which boasts more rare and endemic species than any other Florida state park.
“When he’s my age, there’s going to be nearly 40 million people in Florida. And we’re either going to have ranches and agricultural land in a connected corridor, or we’re not,” he said. “And it’s up to us right now to make that decision.”
Ward and conservationists Joe Guthrie and Mallory Lykes Dimmitt of Tampa are off on a week-long journey between Highlands and Polk counties. They’ll hike and ride through the Lake Wales Ridge, an area of rare plants and animals that were the only parts of Florida above water during a previous bout of global warming, about two million years ago.
Only a series of small islands there poked above the rising seas. Ward said this part of the Lake Wales Ridge is home to animals and plants found nowhere else in the world.
“Lots of things converging here,” Ward said during a kickoff event at Highlands Hammock State Park. “Lots of pressure and lots of opportunity. And the quilt isn’t yet broken. It’s still connected. And while 100 years ago the whole state was a wildlife corridor, the fact that we still have one is an amazing opportunity and it’s such a privilege for us to be able to try to shine more light on that.”
The Lake Wales Ridge has high, sandy soil that has traditionally been perfect for growing citrus. But now that citrus greening has decimated many groves, it’s also perfect for houses.
The trio will cross U.S. 27, where state transportation planners are considering raising the road and building an underpass for wildlife. The Ridge is part of the study area for one of three new toll roads the state is currently eyeing for construction.
On Monday they planned to join the staff from Archbold Biological Station on a scrub jay banding effort at Silver Lake Tract Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife Environmental Area, which is southwest of Avon Park.
They will visit the Avon Park Harebell colony today with a plant biologist and cross U.S. 27 at the site of a proposed wildlife crossing.
Wednesday, they’ll host a restoration roundtable at the Ridge Audubon Center, Babson Park, beginning at 5 p.m.
On Thursday through Saturday, they’ll traverse the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, Avon Park Air Force Range and arrive at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve. There will be a finale Saturday, Oct. 26, at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.
Steve Newborn is an environmental reporter for WUSF Public Media, the NPR station for the greater Tampa Bay region.