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2015 Expedition Launches in Everglades Headwaters

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.

Protecting the Everglades Headwaters in Central Florida is essential for the health of the Everglades system and Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Protecting the Everglades Headwaters in Central Florida is essential for the health of the Everglades system and Florida Wildlife Corridor. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

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.

A map of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area
A map of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area

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.

Suburban development sprawling from Orlando and Kissimmee in Central Florida encroaches on natural landscape of the Everglades Headwaters.  Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr / Carlton Ward Photography / www.CarltonWard.com
Suburban development sprawling from Orlando and Kissimmee in Central Florida encroaches on natural landscape of the Everglades Headwaters. Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr.

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.

Clint Lightsey and daughter Hattie steer an Angus cow and her calf from the edge of Lake Kissimmee. Hattie represents the 15th generation of Lightsey cattle people in the United States and the eighth generation in Florida. Lightsey Cattle Company, Polk County, Florida. The Lightsey family under the leadership of brothers Lain and Cary, have protected 80% of their land through conservation easements, protecting the Everglades headwaters and their agricultural heritage at the same time.  Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr / Carlton Ward Photography / www.CarltonWard.com. See the book Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier. Must contact Carlton Ward Photography upon release of photo to mainstream media.
Clint Lightsey and daughter Hattie steer an Angus cow and her calf from the edge of Lake Kissimmee. Hattie represents the 15th generation of Lightsey cattle people in the United States and the eighth generation in Florida. Lightsey Cattle Company, Polk County, Florida. The Lightsey family under the leadership of brothers Layne and Cary, have protected 80% of their land through conservation easements, protecting the Everglades headwaters and their agricultural heritage at the same time. Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr.

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.

Comments

  1. Gladesman
    January 12, 2015, 9:11 pm

    Oh I know – awaiting review by National Geographic censors.

  2. Gladesman
    January 12, 2015, 9:08 pm

    What’s the matter National Geographic – Can’t take a bit of criticism and truth.

  3. Frank Denninger
    January 12, 2015, 2:30 pm

    Do Floridians that care about the environment and water quality really want to support more cattle pooping into Florida’s water systems (rivers, watersheds etc. Seems like this project called the Headwaters Refuge can only add to the problems (cattle poop and other pollutants in the watrer North of Lake Okeechobee) that Comprehensive Everglades Restoration is attempting to remedy with $20, 000, 000, 000 BILLION dollars currently.

    Cowboys and cattle are cool and beef tastes good to me but I don’t want to pay big time for another massive mistake that this 2015 hike and National Geographic look to be promoting. I wonder how much money the promoters of this 2015 hike PR campaign and the Federal Headwaters Refuge are getting kicked back for helping these land deals that will enrich Florida’s large landowners.

    Maybe scams such as these are not so surprising since it was Federal folks who wrecked the Everglades which are now supposedly in the process of being fixed with taxpayer $$$.