“Before we start, I need to warn you that I am hiking through national forest, and I’ve only got one bar,” said conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt Mexico Spring ’97.
Dimmitt is calling from the Osceola National Forest, near the Florida-Georgia border, where she and the team will hike five miles through pine-palmetto flatwoods and cypress swamps before climbing on their bikes to cycle 24 miles to the Suwannee River. They plan to set up camp and spend the night at the River, then rise early to board touring sea kayaks for a four-day trip to their ultimate destination.
“That will be our final leg of the Expedition,” said Dimmitt. “We have had the route planned for a long time and this last leg in particular, but now we are changing it. We had planned to walk through Pinhook Swamp but there is a fire hazard, so we are going around it.”
The expedition she is referring to is the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 100-day, 1000-mile trek through the state of Florida, from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. Today is day 92, and the team (which includes fellow SFS alumnus and photojournalist Carlton Ward, Jr. Kenya Summer ’97, filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, and bear biologist Joe Guthrie) has traveled on foot and via kayak, stand-up paddleboard, bike, and horseback across a varied network of state and national parks, national forest, private ranch land, water management property, and timberland.
Through this epic trek, and its corresponding traditional and social media campaigns, the team hopes to raise awareness on the critical issue of land fragmentation and encourage action towards joining tracts of public and private land to create migratory and watershed corridors. It was an idea Ward first hatched in 2009, but it would take three years of planning, preparing, and securing funding to make it a reality. In January 2012, with a route they created from scratch and sponsorship from organizations like the National Geographic Society and Patagonia, they set off.
“The Florida Wildlife Corridor is possible,” said Ward, and that’s a good thing for both people and wildlife. These lands provide more than half of the water supply to the state of Florida, and land fragmentation threatens its flow and dispersal. The Corridor also contains critical habitat for wildlife like black bears and panthers, and creating land linkages will support their survival.
If it is going to work, however, there have to be strong partnerships between all of the stakeholders, like nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, and private land owners. During the expedition, the team has had the chance to meet people from these different groups, and they spent several nights hosted by the ranching families that live along the Corridor. “Getting to know them more closely has given me a sense of their needs,” said Dimmitt. “It made me a real advocate for incentives to keep private land owners in Florida and in the lifestyle they have enjoyed for generations.”
The goal is worthy, but the exploit hasn’t been easy. One day included a 36-mile biking trip from Camp Blanding to Lake Palestine in North Florida complete with flat tires, broken bikes, biting vines, thorns, poison ivy, and sugar sand roads. Another day was spent paddling in a stand-up craft for 18 miles against strong winds in the Kissimmee chain of lakes.
“It is part of the adventure. I look back and the most challenging days are the most memorable. They are things we overcame and managed to enjoy!” said Dimmitt.
Spoken like a true SFS alumna!
Her time at SFS, said Dimmitt, inspired her to pursue fieldwork for a living and spend the maximum amount of time out of doors. She remembers the thrill of discovering the ocean and desert landscape of Magdalena Bay in Baja, Mexico, where SFS ran a program in coastal studies from 1997-2011. After SFS, she earned her BS in Natural Resources at University of the South and her MEM in Environmental Economics and Policy. She has worked for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado and is currently Director and Vice‐chair of the Corporate Responsibility Committee of the Florida‐based family agri‐business company, Lykes Brothers Inc.
She has known fellow SFS alumnus Ward since childhood, but the two reconnected in 2007 to found the Legacy Institute for Nature and Culture (LINC), an organization with the purpose of celebrating and protecting Florida’s natural and cultural heritage through art. Prior to his work on the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Ward has worked with the Smithsonian Institute to document the biodiversity of the Gabon rainforest, and he has been published in Audubon Magazine and Nature Conservancy Magazine. His 2009 book, Florida Cowboys, won a silver medal in the Florida Book Awards.
“I had my first solo photography exhibition at Wake Forest University upon returning home from SFS in Kenya. This was a key chapter in my life that started my career,” he said.
You can see Carlton Ward’s photos from the Expedition on their website, along with blog posts, a twitter feed, and videos.