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Walk for Wild Florida

I looked across the expanse of the St Mark’s River, and realized I was stuck. A ferry boat was waiting to take me across the river so I could continue backpacking the Florida trail on the other bank. But that would mean that after hiking, rambling and hopping my way through 280 miles of the Florida backwoods, after starting all the way back at my house in Gainesville, Florida, I would have not done my journey under my own power. If I took a ferry across, the thought would bug me for the rest of my hike. So I hatched another plan—I threw my backpack in the boat, took off my shirt, and asked the ferryman if I could meet him on the other side. He gave me a curious look as I dived into the chilly waters of the river. I emerged on the other side, where I was cheerfully informed that a five-foot long water snake swam right near where I had been.

I was only a day away from completing my Walk for Wild Florida. I had decided to walk from my home in Gainesville to the steps of the state capitol to bring the message to our state’s legislature that it’s time to protect the wild places that make our state such a special place to call home. I was arriving on the first day of the legislative session.

Hiking the longleaf pine savannah of Osceola National Forest with my sister Miriam

On my journey, I mostly walked along the Florida Trail, a national scenic trail through the wild heart of Florida, running from the Everglades to the western panhandle. I walked along the sunlit banks of the Suwannee River, where palmettos and brilliant pink azaleas overlooked the shimmering dark water. I walked through the vast pine savannahs of Osceola National Forest, stately longleaf pines towering over endless grasses where occasional quail would burst into the air and give me a heart attack. I walked through pastures, farms, and rural communities peppered with Baptist churches and hunting camps.

Along the way I met kindly, local, rural people who gave advice, offered me meals, water, and places to stay. I told them about my walk, and they shared how much they loved these wild places, how their way of life was rooted in them. I remember that Trevor, a teen from rural Columbia County, told me, “I love to hunt and fish, and I want to see that my kids and their kids can have this land.” I realized more than ever that communities across Florida and America know how important wild places are to our economy, our clean water, our way of life, and our sense of who we are…that these places are our pride, our heritage, and ultimately our legacy. But I started my walk because I’ve seen—both here in Florida and nationally—a disconnect between how much people care about our wild places and how little is being done to protect them.

Morning on the Suwannee River. Polar fog forms after a cool night.

Florida is home to some of the richest diversity of species and habitats in the temperate world, a veritable natural Eden of white sand beaches, sunlit pine woods, mysterious swamps, and crystal-clear springs.But it’s facing serious pressure from development as new residents, subdivisions, and strip malls crowd the state and fragment wild habitat. In recent years, short-term political thinking has meant that environmental regulations have been weakened and funding for crucial conservation programs has been cut.

Amongst the public, however, conservation is an important and truly bipartisan issue. That’s why in 2014, three of four voters supported a constitutional amendment to create a $1 billion annual fund for the “acquisition and restoration” of wild lands in Florida. It was an overwhelming public mandate to restore funding to state programs like Florida Forever, a popular bipartisan program that identifies and purchases critical wild lands from watersheds to wildlife corridors to hunting grounds. It’s protected over 2.5 million acres of habitat in Florida, and has been held up as a national model for land conservation. Florida Forever’s budget had been gradually cut by 97, percent from a previous level of $300 million a year, so there was a real opportunity for our state to once again become a leader in bipartisan conservation. But the legislature instead used this fund to replace existing maintenance expenses, and only two percent of it went to Florida Forever.

Hiking St Mark’s wildlife refuge

I read a report by the 1000 Friends of Florida organization that stated by 2060 our state’s population will swell to 36 million, and we will lose to development an area of wild and rural land the size of Vermont. New roads and subdivisions further fragment wildlife habitat and degrade ecosystems. What would it mean if much of the incredible natural richness I had grown up with wouldn’t be there for our kids? What would that say about us as a people if we were the ones who ruined it? Inaction would put everything from our favorite canoeing spot to our clean water to our entire tourism economy at stake.

I realized a crucial perception gap—that while today’s political leaders saw this Florida as some far-off possibility, this was well within the lifetime of my generation. That we need to speak up as voters, as inheritors of the land, and as patriots to say that we care about protecting our shared home for future generations.

That was why I started my walk. With the generosity of supporters, I crowdfunded for the supplies I needed. Along the way, I shared photos and narratives of my journey through social media (you can check out facebook.com/WalkForWildFlorida or walkforwildflorida.com) and published a letter to the legislature appealing for conservation funding in newspapers. My wonderful family came up on weekends to resupply me with coffee, trail mix, and moral support (which is all you need in life really). 

After 300 and 24 days of walking, I reached the steps of the state capitol!

When I reached Tallahassee, I spoke at the Awake the State press conference on behalf of the Florida Conservation Voters to remind our governor and legislature that bipartisan conservation needs to be a priority as the legislative session starts. Over the next few days, I walked the halls of the state capitol and met state senators, staffers, and lobbyists to share a vision of stewardship for the Florida we love and remind them of their duty to the public to fund conservation programs.

Now that I’m back, I’m thinking about what I can take from this incredible journey. One thing I have learned is that, though we may get discouraged by news headlines, we don’t have to be passive players in our planet’s future. If you think you’re too ineloquent, politically savvy, or disorganized to do this, you’re no different from me. 

Thanks so much for reading this and thanks to the EarthEcho team for sharing the story! Learn more at walkforwildflorida.org or facebook.com/WalkForWildFlorida. Feel free to get in touch with me at opsychas@gmail.com