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Florida in 50 years: Study says land conservation can buffer destructive force of climate change

A motion-activated camera captures an adult male Florida panther in 2012 on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida.
Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Tampa Bay Times
A motion-activated camera captures an adult male Florida panther in 2012 on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida.

A new report by scientists from four major Florida universities, says that the wildlife corridor — if completed — will not only allow wildlife to survive in the coming decades, it will make climate change less destructive to humans.

Florida’s population is booming. Climate change is making temperatures and sea levels rise. And the state is also trying to protect animals and open land with the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

As the state grows hotter and more crowded in the future, it looks like a three-way collision.

But according to a new report by scientists from four major Florida universities, the wildlife corridor — if completed — will not only allow wildlife to survive in the coming decades, it will make climate change less destructive to humans.

To understand what the challenges Florida will face in 50 years, the report projected how hot Florida will become, how many people will move here, where they will live, and how much open land will be consumed under two growth plans: “sprawl” and “conservation.” The report then factored in climate change.

Scientists and land-use experts from Florida Atlantic University, the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida, as well as the Archbold Biological Station, all contributed their expertise.

What is the Florida Wildlife Corridor?

The Florida Wildlife Corridor, passed into state law in 2021, is still a work in progress, and aims to be an interconnected mosaic of state and national parks, open land and and working cattle ranches. The corridor, which stretches from the Everglades to the Alabama border, will allow Florida’s native wildlife such as Florida panthers, black bears and white-tailed deer to mix and mingle up and down the state instead of genetically withering in isolated pockets.

Currently, 10 million of the planned 18 million acres of the corridor are protected. The remaining 8 million acres are up for grabs, but the state and conservation nonprofits hope to convince land owners to take conservation easements or sell to the state as opposed to developers.

READ MORE: A key portion of the Florida Wildlife Corridor will remain undeveloped

Florida’s booming population

Meanwhile, in the three years since the corridor was enacted, Florida has gained approximately 1 million residents. “The state is welcoming about a thousand new residents a day,” said Colin Polsky of FAU, the lead researcher on the study. “That’s about 300,000 to 400,000 people per year.” There’s currently 23 million people in Florida, said the report, and by 2045 there will be 27.1 million.

The population has increased 26% in just 25 years. “That is not a small rate,” Polsky said.

“It’s exponential. The effects of this set of changes is going to be present probably before we’re ready for it. The effort here is to try to get ready for it,” Polsky said. In other words, how does Florida absorb all these people and remain climate resilient?

The Florida Wildlife Corridor. Currently, 10 million acres are protected and 8 million are still up for grabs.
Courtesy Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation
South Florida Sun Sentinel
The Florida Wildlife Corridor. Currently, 10 million acres are protected and 8 million are still up for grabs.

Future heat and human impact

The state is also getting hotter. Since 1985, the average annual temperature of Florida has increased by approximately 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But Florida seems to be getting hotter faster than other parts of the world. Since 1950, the average global increase was 2.7 F, but Florida has seen a rise of 3.5 F.

In 50 years, or 2074, Florida is trending to be 3 to 5 degrees warmer than the 1981-2010 baseline.

Polsky said that by 2050, under high greenhouse gas emission scenarios, Florida will have more than 50 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees, and a “feels=like” heat index temperature increase of 8 to 15 degrees — the highest in the country.

There are three main climate change threats in Florida, said Polsky: More intense rain events, which leads to greater flooding; more coastal flooding — both from storm surge and high tides; and more heat and wildfire risk. The report indicates that the wildlife corridor, though not initially conceived of as a climate buffer, is an example of the state preparing.

Wild lands protecting humans

Wilderness areas are crucial to Florida buffering itself against the brutal floods that will inevitably come with the more intense rain events of the future, the report said.

Undeveloped land and floodplains act as sponges during the violent deluges we experience with hurricanes and tropical storms. The land holds rainwater and slows it down, whereas paved and developed areas rush rainwater downstream, creating more intense flooding.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency review looked at the economics of conserved lands and flooding and found that forests are worth hundreds of dollars per acre, coastal wetlands thousands of dollars per acre.

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, FEMA estimates that there was an additional $430 million increase in property damage because wetlands had been developed. “Conserving floodplains will mitigate future loss of property,” said the report.

If the proposed wildlife corridor is completed, it will contain about two-thirds of Florida’s floodplains. At the moment, about 60% of the corridor floodplains are protected, and 40% could be developed.

Sprawl vs. compact development

To project Florida’s future, the study looked at two development scenarios. One that followed the current suburban sprawl ethos of development, and one that followed a conservation ethos that uses compact development style that creates more dense, walkable village-like areas surrounded by open land.

Thomas Hoctor, of the UF Center for Landscape Conservation Planning, also modeled where population growth would likely occur, and found that growth is not evenly distributed. Florida has 67 counties, but just nine of them, including Broward and Palm Beach, accounted for half of the growth. The five others were centered around Tampa and Orlando (Pasco, Hillsborough, Polk, Orange and Osceola), and then Duval County and Lee County.

Hoctor said that by 2070, under the sprawl ethos, Florida will lose 3.5 million acres of rural land, an area about the size of Connecticut. Much of that loss will occur in areas planned for the wildlife corridor.

If Florida adopts a compact development ethos, the state would still lose a good bit of rural land, 2 million acres (about the size of Rhode Island), but about 40% less than the sprawl scenario.

Hoctor said under the current sprawl scenario, the state will lose 1.1 million acres of grazing land by 2070. “If so, we won’t have a state-wide corridor,” he warned.

“Compact dense development is one piece of the puzzle,” said project manager Josh Daskin, of Archbold Biology Station, one of the partners in the study. “All those people coming to Florida need a place to live.”

“Right now the corridor is a voluntary conservation initiative. It is not a regulatory effort. But zoning is a piece of the puzzle,” said Daskin.

Policy and incentives

Meredith Budd, of the Live Wildly Foundation, a nonprofit that takes an entrepreneurial approach to protecting wild Florida, saw some high-level policy recommendations coming out of this report.

“We need to have policies that integrate climate resilience into land-use planning,” she said. “That includes local land-use planning of cluster development, and developing in areas that are of lesser environmental value and protecting areas that are of higher environmental value.”

It also raises some crucial questions, such as how to make this happen. Budd is keen on incentivizing such development as opposed to regulation, which can cause resentment, she said.

Budd is big on what she calls zoning overlays. They’re not mandates, but rather incentivize developers to steer clear of larger sensitive areas, and also give density bonuses for developers to build in areas of lesser environmental value.

Of course there’s the possibility that developers take a sprawl ethos regardless of incentives.

“If we don’t protect the remaining 8 million acres (of the potential wildlife corridor), we’re going to see less of a resilience benefit,” Budd said.

What’s next

Hoctor believes that to make the corridor happen properly, people who conserve their land need to get paid for what’s called “ecosystem services,” where their land is serving other people, and wildlife.

Local municipalities will need to somehow change their development mindset, too, in order to push for compact development.

But the state has taken conservation actions as well. Since 2019, Florida has protected more than 260,000 acres of land. Ninety percent of that has been in the wildlife corridor.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis at a recent press conference about fighting red tide.

The recent gaming contract with the Seminole Tribe, which allowed the tribe to introduce craps to its casinos and offer online sports betting statewide, gives the state $2.5 billion in the first five years of the deal. Much of this money will go to water-focused projects and conservation. Some $100 million a year will go to conserving land for the wildlife corridor. And in March, the cabinet and DeSantis approved another 25,000 acres to increase connectivity in the wildlife corridor.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Bill Kearney | Sun Sentinel
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