Florida boasts a diverse array of wildlife, ranging from black bears and panthers to tortoises, sharing the state’s expansive swamps, wetlands, and forests. In fact, all three of those species are the focus of a new land acquisition connecting conservation areas in the middle of the Florida peninsula. The latest in a series of land grabs as part of the Florida Forever initiative, the $50 million price tag covers some 20,000 acres.
Approved by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet, the purchased lands help forge a newly established Florida Wildlife Corridor. The corridor extends from the Osceola National Forest in Northern Florida south to the Ocala National Forest, located just north of Orlando. Also known as the O2O (Osceola to Ocala), the stretch makes possible the easy migration of animals in the region. It permits wildlife to cross the border into Alabama or travel into the Florida Keys, an 800 mile stretch.
Managing the acquired lands will be a coalition of Florida organizations, including the Florida Conservation Commission, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to bears, panthers, and tortoises, this addition secures land vital to various birds, such as the sandhill crane, as well as 45 different reptile and amphibian species.
Furthermore, the deal ensures water conservation for Florida residents. In a prepared statement, DeSantis said he hopes the deal will “conserve Florida’s wide array of natural lands, protect our wildlife, and provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.”
Florida Forever Initiative Continues Conservation Efforts
Within the state of Florida, more than 10 million acres are under conservation management. That translates to nearly 16,000 square miles, collectively larger than the state of Maryland by more than 3,000 square miles. Florida Forever, the program responsible for this latest addition, has operated for twenty years. In that time, the state purchased nearly 900,000 acres for conservation, spending $3.2 billion to do so.
The formation of the O2O Corridor protects species endangered by increasing human expansion in the state. More than 1,000 people move to Florida daily, leading to a rise in development that encroaches on wildlife habitats. In order to safeguard Florida’s rich natural environment, drastic actions must be taken.
The history of Florida land acquisition for conservation efforts traces back to the 1990s, when Governor Bob Martinez signed the Florida Preservation 2000 bill. That earmarked $300 million from the state’s annual budget for land buys. A remarkably bipartisan piece of legislation, it was only ended when the more robust Florida Forever program was created in July of 2001. The financial crisis of 2008 led to budget cuts that crippled the program for over a decade. However, after the passage of Presiden Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, new federal dollars funnelled into the Florida Forever initiative. Paired with renewed state investment of $100 million, the total purse amounts to $400 million.
Conservation advocates in the state say it couldn’t come at a more critical moment. Speaking with The New Yorker, Tampa conservation photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. said, “In ten years, if we don’t act, most of this land will be gone.”
Corridors Stave Off Extinction
Part of the benefit of creating wildlife corridors is ensuring animal populations have access to various territories, rather than being confined to one. In addition to assisting migration patterns and clearing safe passage, they promote genetic diversity. Diversity in the gene pool ensures a species won’t slip into homogenous populations, in which the majority become susceptible to diseases or other environmental threats. Diversity guarantees adaptability, the most basic tenet of natural selection.
This concept is known as island, or insular, biogeography. Summarized, it states the greatest threat to a given species’ continued survival is separation. Such was the case for Pennsylvania’s eastern elk. Colonization in the nineteenth century led to the division of its population, which in turn led to its eradication. The Florida Forever initiative’s creation of the corridor comes as a direct response to such historic outcomes.
Through a combination of publicly owned lands and private lands under conservation management, this unique and trailblazing move in Florida paves the way for other states to act in kind. As climate change and human development continue to challenge wildlife preservation, bold action keeps species from the brink of extinction. The steady encroachment of cities and suburbs on open land united conservationists and ranchers under a common cause. Ranch owners like Jim Strickland of Blackbeard Ranch see a need to protect Florida’s natural heritage. Acting as a steward of the land, Strickland views his property as a safe haven for the state’s various wildlife species. “A good cattle ranch is conducive to a great wildlife base,” he told YourObserver.com.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What endangered species live in Florida?
Among the animals affected by the Florida Forever acquisition is the gopher tortoise. Considered an endangered species, the gopher tortoise gets its name from the way it nests. The tortoise burrows holes in the ground much like a gopher, which it shares with more than 350 other species, making it a keystone to Florida wildlife. As such, its preservation has become a priority for conservationists. Though, they’re far from the only endangered species that calls Florida home. The red wolf, different bird species like the roseate spoonbill, and manatees all require special attention as human activity impacts their health.
How much of the United States is reserved for conservation?
Currently, an estimate of conservation land in the U.S. totals 432,016 square miles. That accounts for 12 percent of the total landmass within the country. In this respect, Florida outpaces the nation by conserving about 29 percent of its total land. Efforts to increase that figure nationally face an uphill battle against energy development, agriculture, and residential expansion.
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