Last week, I attended a screening at the Orlando Science Center of The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida, a documentary chronicling the 70-day journey of a small expedition team as they traversed 1,000 miles across Florida’s wilderness, from the Everglades to the Florida-Alabama border. The team – biologist Joe Guthrie, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmit and photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr.- sought to follow in the footsteps of the Sunshine State’s most iconic animals, including black bears, bobcats and manatees, in an effort to learn more about wildlife corridors and the importance of connecting and protecting wild places in Florida. While the expedition team is inherently crucial to the story of this wilderness adventure and their journey is the key perspective through which we, as an audience, learn of the challenges and wonders of Florida’s wilderness, they are not the most important characters of this tale. The main protagonist is most certainly Florida – its landscapes of swamps, marshes, springs, rivers, and forests, ranging from eerie to angelic, that are the backdrop for the story and the setting for many of our lives, is the crucial leading lady.
Although the film is only one hour long, it transports viewers across a spellbinding array of Florida ecosystems. We watch the crew as they meander along the Withlacoochee River, through Chassahowitzka Springs, and Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs where herds of manatees often congregate to stay warm on cold days, causing a magnificent scene.
They continue on to Goethe State Park and follow in the pawsteps of bobcats that roam through the Big Bend Region. Then onto the Apalachicola River, Wewahitchka and the Dead Lakes Region – an area that formed when waters flooded a low-lying cypress swamp resulting in a mystifying landscape of cypress trees which poke out from the water’s surface. A site that the documentary team noted is unlike any other landscape in Florida. Their journey then continues through Econfina Creek Springs, the Yellow River and through Longleaf Pine Forests that house the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, a species whose habitat has been destroyed so immensely that only 3% of it’s preferred ecosystem remains.
I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t heard of many of these places. And on a side-note, I can’t help but read the names of the many rivers and ecosystems explored in this film that were once inhabited by Native Americans, the Seminoles in particular, and not think about our state’s (and our nation’s) unfortunate past. The importance of understanding the complete history of these wild places – and not just their ecological significance – is not lost on me. The Withalocoochee River, as an example, was the site of the aptly named ‘Battle of Withlacoochee’ in 1835, a standoff between the Seminoles and federal militia which ultimately constituted the start of a 7-year long conflict dubbed the Second Seminole War. In addition to getting out and exploring these (or other) wild places in Florida, I also encourage everyone to spend some time researching and learning about Florida’s Native American history.
The film does an excellent job of telling the story of some of Florida’s most fascinating natural places, while also highlighting some of the challenges we face. A local oyster fisherman in the Apalachicola bay spoke of a steep decline in oyster harvesting and the importance of preserving the integrity of local rivers, so that the delicate balance of fresh and salt water needed to support oysters is sustained. Another gentleman spoke of watching the tree cover around his home diminish as sea levels have risen over the past decade, another unnerving indicator of the impacts of climate change we are already experiencing, and those that have yet to come.
The film also showed clear evidence of gaps within Florida’s wildlife corridors and highlighted the need to connect these gaps so that animals can travel safely. These are species whose lives have already been devastatingly impacted by human development. Their habitats have been destroyed and their daily existence threatened by us, our boats, our cars and our pollution. In the very least, they deserve a way to safely navigate the minimal habitat they have left.
Beyond our responsibility to the wildlife of Florida, we also have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to cherish and protect these wild places. And even with all of the damage we’ve already caused and the challenges created by population growth and suburban sprawl, it’s not too late for us to have a positive impact on Florida’s wilderness. As one of the expedition members said, “we still have an opportunity to protect the wild heart of Florida.”
And with that, I leave you with the following thought, a proclamation I heard and felt in the documentary: we must do our absolute best to keep Florida wild.
If Austin can keep itself weird, we can certainly keep Florida beautiful and wild. Get out and explore! Advocate and vote for legislation that supports wilderness conservation efforts. Support local organizations that are working on these issues and are committed to the environment. Educate yourselves and your friends. Teach your children to love and treasure our Florida wild. And don’t forget that we can all play a small role in helping to support and protect the magnificent natural world that so selflessly supports and protects us.
#KeepFloridaWild – now that’s a hashtag I could get behind. Let’s make it happen!
A quick shout out to the epic team of three that completed the 70 day journey documented in The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida and to all of the supporters and host organizations who made the film and the event screening possible, including the Center for Earth Jurisprudence, Friends of the Wekiva River, Inc., Orange Audubon Society, Florida Wildlife Corridor, Sierra Club, and more. Hats off to you, friends. Bravo!