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Wandering Florida

Wandering Florida - 'In the Spirit of the Wild'
By Joe Murphy
Sep 28, 2006 - 10:20:00 AM

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Osceola National Forest is some of the best there is of Wild Florida. Florida Black Bears roam the deep, dark woods. At night down the darkened forest roads you can see hundreds of fire flies and the call of the frogs in the swamps can be deafening. Those tall and noble long leaf pines sing in the wind and the wiregrass beneath them sways in the breeze. The power and magic of Wild Florida is strong in the Osceola.

For years the most powerful voice for protecting and preserving the forest emanated from a diminutive woman whose first activism came with trying to save one tree in Lake City, Florida. Judy Hancock became a powerful voice for forests after finding her voice fighting to save one tree. Judy is no longer with us in body, but her spirit lives on anywhere the woods, wild places, and wild creatures of Florida still exist.

She was a working mom and housewife in Lake City who decided that she could make a difference. She worked to learn biology, botany, ecology, and master the arcane and bureaucratic ways and language of government. She became one of Florida's most respected and revered advocates for wildlife and wild places. She won the admiration of conservation groups, government agencies, and those who hunted or logged the lands she loved. She had a simple, powerful, and moral way about her that folks were drawn to even when they disagreed with her.

A group of us, conservation activists and government agency staff, gathered last year and again this last week in Osceola National Forest to remember this woman who gave so much of herself to the forest. She would probably have been a little embarrassed by the praise and the reflection.

I first met Judy in Lake City, Florida in 1999. I expected someone larger than life, but met a small woman who was simply full of life. She drove a pick up truck, loved her family and her dogs, and often stopped on the side of the road to pick up turtles or snakes. She had the ear, and the respect, of elected officials and government agencies that don't always see eye to eye with conservationists.

She led the effort to connect Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Osceola National Forest through the Pinhook Swamp. Someday bears, panthers, and red wolves will roam from Ocala National Forest all the way to southeast Georgia thanks in part to her efforts. Part of her legacy will be one of the largest and wildest areas east of the Mississippi River.

Judy had the good manners of those raised in the South, and the toughness of someone who would not back down. She did not make enemies if she could help it, but she pulled no punches when she advocated for something she believed in. Reporters from around the state would call her for her opinion or for the latest information on the effort to protect what is wild and free in Florida.

I miss Judy. She left a big hole in the effort to protect Wild Florida. She will be missed, and remembered. She will be commemorated every year as a group of us gather in the forest to tell stories and sing her praises. Her real legacy lies in the people she touched and inspired to continue the fight to save Wild Florida. Her real legacy lies in every long leaf pine, every Flatwoods Salamander, and every Florida Black Bear. Her spirit is out in those swamps and forests. She will forever be in the spirit of the wild.

Joe Murphy can be reached regarding his "Wandering Florida" columns via email at HYPERLINK "mailto:wildcritters99@aol.com" wildcritters99@aol.com He's glad to be writing again after a brief summer hiatus.





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