Wildlife Expedition Enlists Military Reserves in Mission to Protect Wildlife

Expedition members greet Land Component Commander Army Brig. Gen. Richard Gallant (right) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at Camp Blanding. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa)
CAMP BLANDING (2012-4-16) -

Part of the 1,000-mile trail the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is blazing through Florida passes through what may seem an unlikely place: the main training base for the Florida National Guard. The armed forces are armed with another mission: helping protect the state's wildlife.

Camp Blanding is 72,000 acres tucked between the Ocala and Osceola National Forests. Its location makes it a critical route for wildlife roaming between central and northern Florida. But critters passing through face some special risks - artillery ranges, helicopters and jets.

But it's also is home to pine plantations, swamps and oak hammocks.

"We have a wonderful partnership with Camp Blanding through the years, and it's just getting better and better every year," says Nick Wiley, head of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

He greeted the wildlife expedition members after they skirted the base's bombing range. Wiley says the military is actively managing the landscape, through controlled burns and forestry management practices.

"That's one of our priorities in Florida - to make sure we take great advantage of these military lands," says Wiley. "They do a marvelous job of managing fish wildlife on Camp Blanding - and on all our bases in Florida, for that matter. Up here, you've got gopher tortoises and red cockaded woodpeckers and indigo snakes - and you've got deer and turkey. You've got a wonderful diversity of wildlife."

This isn't the first time the expedition has crossed through military lands. In March, their path took them through the Avon Park Bombing Range, in Polk and Highlands counties. Expedition member Elam Stoltzfus witnessed a bombing run there - up close.

"They had a training exercise. So they had bombs and practice rounds going off from helicopters and jets flying over that afternoon," says Stoltzfus. "And then, we got to see a military exercise up close - they had a Blackhawk in there and they were doing some live target practice, so we got to document that."

At 106,000 acres, Avon Park is the largest single preserved area along the proposed corridor in the southern half of the state. Three-quarters of the bombing range is set aside as conservation areas. Kurt Olsen supervises forestry management at Avon Park.

" You know, with all this development that's been encroaching around, the Air Force has this place sort of tied on up," says Olsen. "There's been other conservation areas purchased around here - on the east side, you've got the Kissimmee State Prairie, on the west side - on the other side of Lake Arbuckle - we have the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. But it all connects with this corridor for this wildlife that can go through the state now."

And supporters of the wildlife corridor say connecting with the military and private landowners is critical to making their vision come true.

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