Surrounded by waving reeds, visitors and locals stand on the sand at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, staring out across the Gulf of Mexico. Low tide has exposed a tiny beach in the midst of the grand salt marsh, hosting spectacular birding opportunities in the Florida Panhandle. An American Flamingo spends its winters here. American alligators slip silently through its shallow waters. Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets and Tricolored Herons probe the mud and flats for food. More than 400 miles away, similar species thrive in Everglades National Park. With the passage of a new state law that strengthens the Florida Forever program, both sites could one day be linked by the Florida Wildlife Corridor, providing critical natural area connections for thousands of native species.
Florida Forever is the state’s premier land conservation program, acquiring parks and preserves to provide recreational opportunities, habitat for imperiled wildlife, and other benefits like water recharge and carbon sequestration. The Florida Wildlife Corridor is an ambitious conservation goal, aiming to create and connect natural area passages across the state, from north to south and also east to west. With new direction from Senate Bill 976 and federal COVID-19 relief, funding set aside for the Florida Forever Program could be used towards acquisition of parcels within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Importantly, this program brings private landowners into conservation by incentivizing permanent easements on their property.
Using Florida Forever’s tried and true process for acquiring parcels (including checks for water quality benefits, habitat, cultural values, and public input), the state can begin to prioritize for purchase 95 parcels already identified in the Florida Forever program that are part of the corridor.
“The Florida Forever Program is like a tree,” Beth Alvi, Director of Policy for Audubon Florida explains, “and multiple conservation programs are its leaves, including the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, Florida Communities Trust, Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program, and now the Florida Wildlife Corridor.”
“It makes good sense to start with land identified in both Florida Forever and the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” she continues. “We do not want to set up separate, competing processes when the goals for both programs have such important overlap.”
This a banner moment for our state - the Governor and legislature have demonstrated their commitment to preserving Florida’s special places. Conserving land in the corridor will help species become more resilient in the face of growing climate change impacts. Coastal ecosystem health starts with healthy inland conservation lands.
Protecting conservation lands through Florida Forever also supports and strengthens Florida’s environment-dependent economy. From tourism to real estate, agriculture to defense, our state’s economy hinges on healthy wetlands, protected open space, and clean water.