Photo by: Zach Forsburg

Archbold Plays Key Role in 2nd Florida Wildlife Corridor Summit

Author: Josh Daskin

September 26–28 marked ‘Corridor Connect’, the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Summit, held in Orlando and highlighting statewide efforts to protect the natural and agricultural lands that provide and connect wildlife habitats. Staff of Highlands County’s Archbold Biological Station have been leaders in the science, conservation, and education realms of the Corridor campaign, which, in Highlands and similar counties, aims to conserve ranchlands and intact ecosystems that Florida Black Bears, Florida Panthers, birds, plants, and many other species call home. Dr. Joshua Daskin, Archbold’s Director of Conservation said, “More than 400 landowners, agency and non-profit staff, commercial representatives, and scientists gathered to celebrate recent progress and identify next steps to support the Corridor’s environmental, social, and economic benefits.”

Since the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act was passed unanimously by the Florida legislature and signed by Governor DeSantis in July 2021, more than 190,000 acres have been permanently conserved statewide, leaving just under 8 million acres of so-called Opportunity Areas—areas identified as key to connecting habitats for wildlife to travel in search of food, mates, and shelter. Decades of research by Archbold and scientists worldwide emphasize that connected wildlife habitats are much more likely to maintain wildlife populations than those isolated within seas of development or surrounded by major roads. “In Florida, where natural ecosystems are no longer found, ranching and timber lands provide important surrogates for wildlife habitat, while also providing income for our agricultural communities. So, the Corridor is about protecting wildlife, but it’s also about protecting human communities from loss of working lands and poorly planned development,” said Daskin.

Archbold staff at the summit spoke about economic opportunities for landowners to be paid for conservation. Dr. Hilary Swain, Archbold’s Executive Director said, “Sale of conservation easements—where development rights are sold but ownership and usually agricultural production remain,” are a key tool for protecting rural economies and wildlife at risk from development.

Daskin led a session on another emerging tool combining economic assistance for ranchers with conservation. Payments for ecosystem services are contracts where landowners agree to certain management activities like storing water or prescribed fire in return for usually annual payments. Again, agriculture but not development can be compatible and continue for the contract duration.

 Photo by: Zach Forsburg

Caption: Archbold Executive Director Dr. Hilary Swain (2nd from left) participates in the ‘Charting the Path Forward’ panel discussion at the 2nd Florida Wildlife Corridor Summit.

Several Archbold staff ran a workshop on how to better use science to advance conservation. Dr. Zach Forsburg, Archbold’s engagement manager said, “The key is to engage up front. Researchers like those at Archbold will be more effective by planning with landowners and agency staff to make sure the science we do is primed for use.” It’s a process that Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch has used for many years to get their science on sustainable ranching practices into the hands of landowners around the state.

Other high-profile speakers at the summit included national and international conservation leaders like Dr. Jodi Hilty, President and Chief Scientist of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative. The Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor is similar in its goals to the Florida Wildlife Corridor, though aims to retain connections among habitats in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and western Canada. Mark Wilson, President and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce presented extensive socio-economic data related to Florida counties and discussed how these data might inform the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Florida leads states east of the Mississippi in terms of the percent of land conserved, though much of that land is wetlands such as in the Everglades. Recently state legislators have allocated funds of more than $2 billion for agencies to refresh efforts to protect wild and rural Florida and to improve water quality, both of which conservationists say are key to the benefits people get from nature. “We have more than 1,100 additional Florida residents every day,” said Daskin. “They all need places to recreate, and many are supported by the millions of tourists who come to Florida for our nature each year.”