We are poised at the brink of the 2015 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. This trek begins in the northern reaches of the Everglades Headwaters, on the banks of Lake Hatchineha in Polk County, Florida. This is familiar ground for expedition members Carlton Ward, Jr., Mallory Dimmitt and myself. South of Kissimmee and I-4, Lake Hatchineha marks the mid-way point for a 100-day expedition we undertook in 2012. Lake Hatchineha is one of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, which collect and feed water south to the vast Lake Okeechobee.
This area is the footprint of a major conservation project still awaiting funding. In 2010 the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a plan to protect 150,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Central Florida, encompassing an area from Orlando south to Lake Okeechobee. The plan was to create a new National Wildlife Refuge, and to augment and buffer the refuge, the government would form public-private partnerships with the areas ranchers in the form of conservation easements. Easements were to account for 2/3 of the 150,000 acres. It was named Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, and it stands to fill in a gap in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Inspired by the creation of the new refuge and the opportunity to build grassroots support for conservation in an oft-overlooked area of the Everglades ecosystem, the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition powered through the opportunity area of the proposed new refuge, crossing 6 properties where willing sellers representing thousands of acres were seeking to sell easements, which would keep their land from being developed in perpetuity. We met with landowners and land trust partners, all of whom were focused on the importance of conserving a substantial piece of a landscape that many Baby Boomers today still remember as a vast grassland and open space. But as Florida’s population has exploded with the influx of one thousand new residents a day, this rural land, so treasured by its natives, has been taken over by housing developments pressing in from urban areas on its fringes.
Today, Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge exists, but its acreage has yet to be expanded beyond the ten acres donated in 2012 by the Nature Conservancy in the official creation of the refuge. Today there has been progress made, especially through the dedicated work of ranchers as well as Florida’s sportsmen and women. Leaders among both groups have worked together and collectively thrown their weight into expanding the refuge for the best interests of the land, water, and wildlife, but also in the best interests of the people who work and use the land.
But the lion’s share of the work remains to be done, and the urgency is great. That was true in 2012 and it is true today, as the real estate market in Florida comes roaring back. The USFWS, along with most other federal agencies, has been criticized in the halls of Congress, enduring deep budget cuts that have hindered progress on many projects, including Everglades Headwaters NWR.
In Florida, a new funding stream has emerged through the passage of Amendment 1, or the Land and Water Legacy Amendment. In 2014, 75% of Florida voters approved the placement of conservation funding in the state’s constitution for the next twenty years at levels some believe will be from $500 million to $700 million per year. Most of the acres of interest to the federal officials guiding the refuge are also highly valued by conservationists on the state level. The good work of partnership building done around the refuge creation means that with USFWS funding levels low, the state, with its newly beefed-up conservation budget, may step in and help with the expansion and management of the refuge and conservation area.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor team has followed the Everglades Headwaters NWR story since its inception, and we trumpeted its virtues to all that would listen during the 2012 trek and in the years since. We have watched friends and family members in the landowner and sportsmen communities alike, our partners in the land trust and agency professions, all struggle with bureaucracy, politics and shrinking budgets, all to try to forge the refuge and conservation area into something substantial.
We recognize that there is much still to be done and we’re hoping to shed light on the story through this expedition. We’re beginning on the refuge’s ten acres, in the hope that very soon we will see added to the footprint of Everglades Headwaters NWR those acres of new public land and private conservation land that are yet to be protected.