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I am grateful to live where I do, in Polk County, on the Ridge.  I enjoy living in one of its most rural corners. Recently, I looked out my window and saw a black bear about a hundred yards from my house. It caused no harm, did no mischief, and just ambled on about its business of being a bear. I feel grateful to have wildlife experiences like that right out my back door.

A group concerned for the future of large animals like Florida black bears and Florida panthers recently stopped at my house during their trek across the Ridge. They are producing their fourth documentary film bringing attention to the need to preserve corridors for these animals. Bears and panthers are wide-ranging species that need large areas to support viable populations. Both panthers and black bears need the native habitats that remain on the Ridge to help them survive into the future in this part of Florida.

You may have seen one of the documentaries by this group called the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. On this most recent expedition, they trekked overland from Highlands Hammock State Park, west of Sebring, to The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve, east of Lake Wales. What I learned from the trekkers is that these large animals need not only the protected conservation lands of central Florida but also the open spaces that connect those natural areas. In the Kissimmee Valley to the east, the connectors are cattle ranches, and here on the Ridge the connectors are primarily citrus groves.

We are fortunate to have more than 40 protected conservation areas on the Ridge. Many of these sites are islands of natural habitat in a sea of human activity. Fortunately, in many cases, citrus groves provide uninhabited safe passageways between the natural areas. Wildlife takes advantage of these groves to get to and from the remaining pieces of habitat they need to survive.

The Expedition trekkers shared with me that radio tracking of bears and panthers has recently revealed just how important citrus groves are for wildlife travel corridors. The radio tracking shows that the groves provide an essential link for bears and panthers to traverse across the Ridge to access needed habitat in the conservation areas.

I am grateful to our tenacious citrus growers who are not giving up in the face of citrus greening. Their groves provide many services beyond producing delicious fruit. Wildlife corridors are just one example of how we all benefit from citrus being an abundant part of the Ridge landscape.

Surprisingly, citrus groves provide excellent water conservation services. You may think of citrus groves as a consumer of water, and irrigating them does consume water from the aquifer. But the open sands in citrus groves provide excellent storage of rainfall, readily absorbing the large surplus quantities of summer rainfall. You have probably never seen rain water running out of a grove onto a street. It just doesn’t happen, because the grove sand is so absorbent. Rain water stored in the sand is a crucial water bank that provides slow underground seepage into our lakes, filtering the water and keeping our lakes from drying up in the dry winter months. When groves are converted to commercial use, the impervious surfaces of rooftops and parking areas disrupt the natural rainwater absorption that citrus groves and natural areas provide.

Another service groves provide that you may not have considered, is the oxygen they produce from the carbon dioxide they absorb into their leaves. This important process goes on day in and day out and improves our air quality and takes carbon out of the atmosphere. All trees provide this service, but having millions of citrus trees in our area greatly increases the storage of carbon and the release of oxygen. The abundance of groves of citrus trees greatly reduces the “carbon footprint” of our area.

Citrus gives the Ridge its distinctive rural character. It is what sets us apart from the rest of Florida. Visitors are impressed by our culture here, the same way that grapes give Napa Valley its charm, the way pecans are to southern Georgia, and apples to New England. If the entire landscape of the Ridge becomes commercial and our towns merge together, we will have little that distinguishes us from the urban counties that surround us, where small towns have coalesced into a continuous urban landscape.

In addition to these benefits, it is just good to have agriculture be a part of our lives. We are living today in a modern world that is increasingly separated from nature and food production, Having natural areas and farms in our communities helps keep us and our children connected to the earth and to our reliance on the land and the people that tend it in order to provide us with food.

And lastly, we are so fortunate to have locally produced, healthful and refreshing fruits that the world cherishes: oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines. May it be forever so!

For all this, I am grateful to the people who are struggling to keep their citrus groves alive. Our rural way of life depends on their success as well as the water quality and water levels of our lakes and streams. Likewise, the future survival of our iconic large mammals.

I am grateful for citrus. I hope you are too. Hug a citrus grower!

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