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Wandering Florida

Wandering Florida - Conserving Florida's Wild Places
By Joe Murphy
Jul 21, 2006 - 8:58:00 AM

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I've always been fascinated by what I like to call "Wild Florida."  Wild Florida is hard to define, but you know it when you find it.  It's where the paved road ends and the dirt road begins.  It could be around the next bend in the river, or on the other side of the marsh.  Even though there is less of it then there used to be, it is still out there.

 Wilderness advocate and Vietnam War veteran Doug Peacock likes to say that a place is not wilderness unless "something out there can kill you and eat you."  By that definition, between the alligators and the sharks, we still have a little wilderness in Florida.  I like critters with big teeth and healthy appetites as much as the next guy, but I'm not quite ready to be somebody's lunch just yet.  In Florida a place is wild if you can still get a little lost in it, and the land or water provides habitat for creatures that need large areas to roam, hunt, breed, and survive.

 We all owe a debt of gratitude to Hillsborough County's ELAPP Program, the Florida Park Service, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and all the other agencies and groups who are  preserving conservation areas and public lands in Hillsborough County.  Although the county is growing homes and stores as never before, government agencies and non-profit groups like the Tampa Bay Conservancy are working hard to set aside more public lands.  We have more to acquire, and we need to connect the large areas of public lands in the County to ensure wildlife corridors and greenways, but good work has been done thus far.

 This valuable work to acquire, preserve, and manage public lands is occurring across west-central Florida with long time or newly formed programs in Pasco, Hernando, Sarasota, and Polk Counties.  We should all value and work to preserve the birthright of future generations of Floridians, the rich natural heritage we are duty bound to pass on to them.
 When I was a youngster we lived along the banks of the Withlacoochee River, across the river from the state forest.  One night, a night forever etched into my memory, we heard a panther screaming in the night.  Every once in a while we saw a bear, or evidence of a bear.  And while we never saw a Skunk Ape (Florida's version of Bigfoot), they could have been out there roaming the backwoods and backwaters.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Brochure
 I like to think that a few Skunk Apes still haunt the night.  The Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus regions were a hotbed for Skunk Ape sightings in the 1970s.  I'd suspect more than one, if they do indeed exist, may have roamed the woods and wild places of southern Hillsborough County.  I'm not sure I believe in Skunk Apes literally, but I love what they might represent.  Some places in Florida, or in the American South, are still completely and utterly wild.

 The jury is out on the existence of Skunk Apes, but we know for sure Florida has bears and panthers.  Florida Black Bears still roam the forests and marshes of Florida, and we have some just to the north in Hernando County.   A population of bears survives in the region between Aripeka and Chassahowitzka.  All they need to survive is a little grace, wisdom, and tolerance on our part.  I believe in the core of my soul that Florida needs Florida Panthers and Florida Black Bears to truly be Florida.

 When we protect wild places, like the Pinhook Swamp in north Florida or Babcock Ranch to our south, we protect the wild creatures and the wild spirit of Florida.  We protect the landscapes needed by bears and panthers, and maybe a Skunk Ape or two.  Florida still has vast and wild regions that can, and must, be brought into public ownership to ensure Florida's wild legacy.

 To learn more about local efforts to protect and preserve conservation lands check out the efforts of the Tampa Bay Conservancy

© Copyright 2008 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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