Florida panther, ©Connie Bransilver/USFWS

Wildlife Network Looks Great from 1,000 Feet

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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Florida Habitat Map

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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Aerial photo of NW Florida

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.

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10 Responses to “Wildlife Network Looks Great from 1,000 Feet”

  1. John Outland

    Kent,

    Thanks for sharing. Could not tell from the map scale but appears that the Upper and Lower St. Marks including the Lake Lafayette chain are included. We have reps and landowners meeting with DSL today on the Upper Lake Lafayette Aquifer Protection FF parcel. As you know BP gave is $1.05M for acquisition of land to support a trail.

    Regards,

    John

    • Kent Wimmer

      Hello John,

      Yes the Northwest Florida Wildlife Habitat Network Vision does include the Lake Lafayette chain, and I believe the next version will also contain the lower St. Marks River. Our current vision connects habitats in the St. Marks river corridors to those in the Wacissa/Aucilla river corridors. Please let me know how I can continue to help your efforts.

  2. Bill Chamberlain

    Connectivity is finally coming to America. Many such “corridor bridges” has been done in Africa and India for years. It’s about time we started doing it in our own back yard. Congratulation Kent.

  3. Alan Solomon

    Thank you for all you are doing in this region. I make my living raising and spreading awareness in other industries. I have been described as an information specialist because I enjoy speaking with new people. A donation is not something I can do at this time but, if I can sign petitions or write letters or make telephone calls I may be able to assist in those departments.

  4. Valeria Agoitia

    I would like to know if there is an article where I could find a little bit more of how the map was done. Thank you

    • Kent Wimmer

      Hello Valeria,

      Thank you for your interest. I haven’t written a detailed article, but Dr. Tom Hoctor of the University of Florida GeoPlan Center has written a description of the data sets and models we used for our work. If you would like a copy, please send me your email address at kwimmer@defenders.org, and I will email it to you.

      The steps for developing the Northwest Florida Wildlife Habitat Network were:
      1. Statewide parcel data was obtained from the Florida Geographic Digital Library, and we obtained and mapped future land uses and highway widening projects.
      2. We identified all parcels that intersected with Florida Ecological Greenway Network Critical Linkages or Florida Ecological Greenways Network Priority 2 corridors
      3. Removed parcels less than 5 acres.
      4. Removed parcels that are developed.
      5. Removed parcels that are within existing conservation lands.
      6. Removed parcels that are within Florida Forever projects.

      Thank you for your interest and support for our project.

  5. jason Allison

    the wood pellet industry is a sham and should not be allowed to continue- especially when our own government tells us not to burn wood as fuel, or at least is trying to strictly regulate how we do. compared to large-scale production of energy as well as many other high-impact industries, this is a grain of sand on the beach… I’m curious as to where the 10 to 20 billion dollars coming from. You described an area as being a United Nations Biosphere Reserve… is your organization working with the Wildlands Project (founded by Dave Foreman)? are you planning directly or indirectly with the United Nations? glad to see that the compensatory money from BP is being used as well!

  6. Kent Wimmer

    Hello Jason,

    Thank you for your note. The $10-$20 billion for Florida Forever comes from a state tax on the mortgages, loans and other documents called the documentary stamp tax. We will be continuing to advocate for oil spill money funds to be used for habitat and environmental restoration.

    We are familiar with the Wildlands Project and other regional conservation planning efforts, but our our vision is much more focused and detailed than those broader efforts. We have had no involvement with nor have we coordinated in any manner with the United Nations, but the Biosphere Reserve designation does reflect the biological significance of the Apalachicola River corridor.

    Thank you for your interest and support of our project.

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