By Scottie Andrew, CNN
Updated 0702 GMT (1502 HKT) July 4, 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
The corridor, Ward said, "touches virtually every facet of life in Florida."
But the success of the corridor requires participation from ranchers who've tended the land for decades. Conservation easements incentivize land owners to sell their development rights and retain their land, which animals can use to travel through. It's not always easy to convince landowners to participate, Ward said, since land is increasingly valuable as Florida's population balloons.
"With that pressure, most farms and ranches are going to be subdivisions in our lifetime," he said. "Houses are the final crop."
But the easements allow the land to retain its agricultural use, which benefits ranchers and farmers (as do the tax benefits they receive through the easement), and keeping the land natural keeps the corridor intact, which benefits Florida's wildlife, Ward said.
Sixth-generation rancher Cary Lightsey acquired a conservation easement in the 1990s on one of his main ranches, a move he made then to keep his land in the family (the seventh and eighth generations of Lightseys plan on ranching, too, he said).
Easements have helped Lightsey, who considers himself a temporary "landlord" of central Florida, maintain more than 18,000 acres of land in the state. He watched as fellow cowboys sold their land to real estate developers and grew to regret the decision. He works now to convince them to pursue easements, too.
"My dad always said that people don't come here from up north to see subdivisions," Lightsey said. "They come here to see our beautiful ecosystems."
Protecting his land from developers makes business sense, too. If new real estate surrounds his land, the concrete would impede rainwater from reaching Florida's aquifers, which supply around 90% of the state's drinking water, he said. And when industrial materials from those developments mix with runoff, it can pollute that essential water supply.
"I want to live in a state that's sustainable, that I know I have all the natural resources, water, clean air, home for endangered species and green space," he said.
The conservation easement has paid off in more ways than one: He's one of the few Floridians to see a panther in the wild. A female lives on his central Florida ranch, and every so often, she'll birth twin cubs, he said. Lightsey leaves the panther mother alone, and in return for the shelter, she'll hunt invasive armadillos and wild hogs. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.
Protecting the corridor will take work
The passage of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act is a victory for conservation but not a blanket solution to Florida's environmental woes. There are still toxic algal blooms clouding up springs formerly clear as crystal, and Florida's underground water supply still struggles to recharge when pavement obstructs rainwater from ever reaching the aquifer. And there will still be private lands along the corridor that owners decide to sell to real estate developers, despite conservationists' best efforts, Ward said.
"There's reason to be optimistic," Morgan said. "But we have to recognize that there's hard work ahead."
Preventing further harm from coming to Florida's land and water -- and mending the harm that is still reversible -- relies on the support of people like Lightsey. He wants his family, the seventh- and eight-generation Lightsey ranchers, to experience the same connection he feels with nature every day.
"I guess I'm fortunate that every morning I get up, if I'm going to drive cattle or saddle horses, I get to watch the sunrise," he said. "I don't hear cars, I don't see cars, I don't see people. I see the wildlife."
He'll spot the female panther that lives on his land from time to time, often carrying her two cubs in her mouth. The panther occasionally stops and stares at Lightsey, as if to thank him for leaving her be, he said.
And even though the conservation efforts he's supported for years are now protected by law, Ward is still taking pictures, still running a photo-storytelling project called "Path of the Panther" and still partnering with people like Lightsey to sell folks on conservation easements. He'll never be done educating Floridians -- and conservationists in other states, whose work may follow the same blueprint as the Florida Wildlife Corridor's legislation -- on the value of their land.
"It's easy for natural assets to be hidden in plain sight from our cities and our suburbs -- you'd never know Florida has cowboys or ranches or that Florida has black bears," he said. "We're hoping the Florida Wildlife Corridor's recognition will change that."
That recognition might start with an arresting image of a muscular panther on the prowl or a gentle manatee and its calf as they idle in a spring. The more people he reaches with his images, he said, the more likely they'll be to learn something new about their state and the way they rely on its natural wonders for survival.