In today’s world of constant development, it’s becoming ever rarer to find significant areas of important wildlife habitat that remain connected to one another. Subdivisions and highways fragment wildlife habitat, isolating animals from other populations and resources. Reconnecting those habitats, and making sure the intact habitat blocks stay that way, is going to be vital to protecting many imperiled species as the human population continues to grow and spread. That’s why one of our latest projects is so exciting.
This spring, Defenders and the University of Florida finished mapping a network of wildlife habitats and corridors across Northwest Florida. We used geographic information system (GIS) models to map priority unprotected habitats and to identify areas that will be developed in the years to come. These maps show us the most important places to protect in order to achieve our vision: a continuous, landscape-level habitat network extending west from the Suwannee River to the Perdido River on the Florida-Alabama border.
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This Northwest Florida Wildlife Network will connect important habitats for species like the endemic Florida black bear and the federally endangered Florida panther – animals with large home ranges whose protection benefits many other plants and animals because of the sizeable area they require, as well as the variety of habitat types they use. While the Florida panther has not yet returned to Northwest Florida as far as we know, experts believe it could be reestablished to the area around the Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola River. Protecting wildlife corridors that connect core habitat areas like these are critical to ensuring these wide-ranging animals survive in the future.
A Bird’s-Eye View
In the last week of June, I joined colleagues from Dogwood Alliance on an aerial reconnaissance of some of the key areas that will make up this wildlife corridor: the forests of the Apalachicola River floodplain and the timberlands northeast of Panama City.
The Apalachicola River basin is designated as a UN Biosphere Reserve, and it is one of the nation’s most important biological hotspots. The river’s upper basin has the highest species density of amphibians and reptiles found north of Mexico, including the listed flatwoods and southern dusky salamanders, gopher frog and the endemic Barbour’s map turtle. The river and its corridor are also home to more than two dozen endangered plants, five federally listed mussels, and 86 species of fish including the federally threatened Gulf sturgeon. The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve protects one of the most productive estuarine systems in the northern hemisphere. It is also a significant forage area for migratory birds from both the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways such as the protected Arctic peregrine falcon and American kestrel.
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Our flight took off from the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which was carved out of industrial pine plantations. Our first destination was to a local pellet mill that chips whole trees to produce wood pellets for export to European power plants. Europe is reducing use of coal by using woody biomass, but this demand is turning southern U.S. pine and hardwood forests into fuel. The Dogwood Alliance reports that in North Carolina and Virginia swaths of floodplain forests have been clearcut (a practice where every single tree is cut down) to feed pellet mills.
After flying around the pellet mill and its massive log piles, we flew east to the Apalachicola River and then south following its floodplain.
From 1,000 feet, I was happy to see that these bottomland hardwood forests remain generally intact. But they were not untouched. A couple of areas near Interstate 10 and State Road 20 were recently thinned, and we could see signs of hardwood regrowth following logging. Thankfully, there were no clearcuts in sight.
Beyond the floodplain were planted pine plantations stretching from horizon to horizon, only broken by small towns, clusters of homes, highways and pasture lands. These extensive pine plantations are managed as a crop, much like corn or soybean fields in the Midwest, to feed the pulp and pellet mills providing fiber and fuel. We flew over large clearcuts and newly replanted forests that showed the relatively short 25 to 40-year growing rotations of these pine plantations. While not as biologically diverse as the natural longleaf pine forests nearby, these industrial forests connect and buffer public lands and provide much better wildlife habitat than pastures for grazing cattle or residential and commercial development.
The Work Ahead
Much of the habitat we saw that day needs to be protected if we want the Northwest Florida Wildlife Network to become a reality. Last year, the citizens of Florida took a step toward that by voting to pass Florida’s Water and Land Constitutional Amendment (Amendment 1), a proposal that grants the state $10-$20 billion over the next twenty years for water and land conservation. Another $3.25 billion is expected for environmental restoration and economic development as part of the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Florida will have the funding necessary to close the gaps in the Network and give our wildlife a path forward. Sadly, it’s never quite that simple.
Our immediate challenge is that, despite the clear approval (75%) from voters for Amendment 1, the state Legislature hasn’t been following through. Instead of using the funds to purchase and protect more wildlife habitat, they’re using it to pay for salaries and existing functions of state environmental agencies. Defenders is working hard, along with other organizations, to spread awareness that this is happening, and to set the legislature back on track. Now is the time to protect and restore Northwest Florida’s best remaining habitats and wildlife corridors, before we lose them to development.
Defenders in Florida
Florida is home to some of the country’s most special places and wildlife, but also some of the most imperiled. See how we’re working to keep the Sunshine State a wild and enchanting place.