The Rainbow River is one segment of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, nearly 18-million acres of protected public and private lands in the state.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor is nearly 18 million acres of natural wonder. The state just took a significant step to keep it alive

Updated 11:13 AM ET, Tue July 6, 2021

(CNN)Wedged between Florida's two coasts are some of the richest ecosystems in the US, teeming with native wildlife that prefers to be hidden from human view.

The animals' natural lives for the most part remain a secret to Floridians. To catch glimpses of them in the wild, Carlton Ward Jr. sets a camera trap and bides his time.
"I wait for the animal to take its own picture," said Ward, a conservationist, wildlife photographer and lifelong Floridian.
It's rigorous work that forces Ward to venture into the humid depths of the Everglades or hold his breath while rigging an underwater camera in a murky swamp. The animals rarely reveal themselves when he's in their midst.
But sure enough, when given the space and equipment, those shy species start to appear.
A manatee swims in the freshwater springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, an important part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Through the eyes of his cameras, Ward has seen a female panther guide her cubs through an oak-shaded hammock and a black bear stand up straight to scratch its back against the scaly bark of a pine tree. At the same site, he's seen alligators waddling with prey in their jaws, great white herons strolling stoically across a log and river otters playing in a puddle.
"[Florida] is as rich and wild as anywhere on Earth, and it's all right here, kind of hidden between our beaches," he said.
His snippets of the animals' private lives are captivating, but Ward's photography also serves as a kind of wildlife activism. The animals he follows are the unwitting ambassadors of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a nearly 18-million-acre stretch of land that extends from one end of the skinny peninsula state to the other. It's the path along which hundreds of native species live, eat and reproduce.
"You can kind of think about it as Florida's 'green infrastructure,' the heart and lungs of the state," Ward said.
The Aucilla River's continued health depends on the protection of Florida Wildlife Corridor lands upstream.
Ward has for years advocated for the corridor -- a project that received statewide recognition this week, when Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which allocated around $400 million to protect millions of acres of the state's precious green space.
The animals, Ward said, provide an entry point for human residents of the state to care about the corridor and learn more about the ways its survival is entwined with their own.

The corridor's recognition is an essential step for conservation

The Florida Wildlife Corridor makes up just less than half of Florida, Ward said. It's not a straight line up the side of the state -- on a map of Florida, the wildlife corridor consists of all the green spaces, public and private, between pockets of cities.
"Look at it like a quilt," he explained. "If you have a quilt of different shades of green, some of those patches are the public lands, state parks, national parks and state forests. The other parts of the quilt are citrus groves, timber farms ... but they're one connected green fabric. As long as you have that green path, that green swath of land, the Florida panther and Florida black bear can roam throughout the state."
The $400 million appropriation will go toward conservation easements, in which land owners hold onto their land, but sell the development rights to back to the state or to a nonprofit -- preserving natural space. Incorporating private land will help prevent the fragmenting of land and water in the state so animals will have more room to roam freely, and the state's natural resources won't be as vulnerable to overuse or pollution, Ward said.
A male Florida panther triggers a camera trap at Babcock Ranch State Preserve, part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor in southwest Florida.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor is a sort of prevention plan, then, to keep the state from overdeveloping its remaining green spaces.
Conservationists say it passed just in time.
For years, nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy in Florida have sounded the alarm about protecting these critical green spaces. Statewide conservation efforts started off successfully enough with the launch of Florida Forever, a land acquisition program founded in the early 2000s that resulted in over 2 million acres of land purchased for protection.
But the rate of land acquisitions wasn't keeping up with the rate at which Florida has been developed since then, and paired with the multitude of environmental blows caused by climate change (excessive heat, rising sea levels and acidification of its waters, among others), the window to protect Florida's natural resources was shrinking quickly, said Temperince Morgan, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Florida.
"We recognize that our population is going to grow, but we need to try to do that in a very thoughtful and sustainable way," Morgan said. "We can protect our wildlife, protect our water resources and still provide home for our growing communities. It's possible."
And Florida won't stop growing. According to a March report from the state's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the state of nearly 21.5 million will see more than 300,000 new residents a year until April 2025 -- that's around 845 new residents per day.
Florida woos new residents with its mild winters, steady sunshine and proximity to beaches. But to the influx of new Floridians, the state's decline is often less noticeable than it is to conservationists who've witnessed it firsthand, Morgan said.
"There are so many new people moving to Florida who don't know what we've lost," she said. "They don't know what Florida used to look like, so to them, Florida is still this perfect paradise. But ... this paradise is very much at risk and in peril."
Longleaf pines forests, pictured here at Avon Park Air Force Range in the Everglades Headwaters, are an essential Florida ecosystem.
Take the Everglades, one of the largest national parks in the continental US and Florida's swampy crown jewel. It's mostly confined to the southwestern tip of the state, but its headwaters begin up in Orlando, more than 200 miles away. Increased development along the stretch of the corridor between the two regions could cut animals off from the northern side of the state beyond Orlando, effectively separating populations of species, which could harm their ability to feed, reproduce and ultimately survive, Ward said.

Humans rely on the corridor, too

The animals are a way to invite Floridians to learn more about the importance of the corridor, Ward said. Protecting the corridor benefits humans, too. Preventing development near springs and rivers -- essential sources of drinking water for millions of residents -- helps keep that water clean and prevent pollution and overuse.