Met the 7th-Generation Floridian Saving Our Wild Spaces

Old Northeast resident Mallory Lykes Dimmitt admits to having a “big audacious goal” – permanently protecting millions of acres of natural, wild Florida from development. It’s a task that might seem impossible, but as CEO of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, Dimmitt is committed to making it happen. “We are acting now for future generations,” Dimmitt said. “We may not be able to protect every acre, but we can protect as much as we can, as fast as we can.”

I met with Dimmitt in her new spacious office at The Factory St. Pete, a burgeoning creative arts destination in the Warehouse Arts District. A beautiful mural of a great blue heron and a Florida black bear mark the entryway to her new headquarters. Inside is the Wild Space Gallery, which showcases art exhibits related to nature and environmental conservation. “We’re the only Florida conservation headquarters that has an art gallery,” said Dimmitt. The work of well-known St. Pete artists Carol Mickett and her husband Robert Stackhouse is currently on display.

If Dimmitt’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she is connected to the Dimmitt Automotive Group on her father’s side, and the Lykes family shipping, citrus, forestry, and ranching business on her mother’s side. She’s a rarity – a seventh generation Floridian. Growing up, Dimmitt and her siblings spent a lot of time outside. “My parents were outdoorsy and we visited all the rivers you could paddle,” she said. “My sister and I would put on masks and snorkels and my parents would tow us behind their canoe. We enjoyed classic Florida adventures. I was always hiking and biking.”

Mallory Dimmitt, CEO of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, on an expeditation into wild Florida.

Dimmitt also enjoyed going on field trips to nature preserves with her mother, who was a board member of the Nature Conservancy. “It exposed me to nature in a new way, the idea of environmental education and conservation as something people could do as a profession, a career,” said Dimmitt. Not surprisingly, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and then a master’s in environmental economics and policy from Duke. She also enjoyed whitewater rafting with friends in the Carolinas, and paddling trips in Colorado, where she lived for a while and worked for the Nature Conservancy on the North American Lands Project. But ultimately, she decided to come home and get “reconnected with Florida adventures.”  

About a decade ago, Dimmitt and her husband Bert Martin, CEO of Martin Capital Management, moved to the Old Northeast where they live with their rescued 93-pound yellow lab, Biscuit. Shortly after they moved into their home, one of the first things this committed conservationist did was to replant her yard with Florida native trees and shrubs. “The wildlife have come back,” said Dimmitt. “It’s great to see more birds and butterflies.”

In 2007, she co-founded the Legacy Institute for Nature and Culture (LINC) which celebrates and protects Florida’s natural heritage through art. Three years later, Dimmitt joined forces with Carlton Ward, Jr., a well-known nature and wildlife photographer, who spearheaded the idea of creating a Florida Wildlife Corridor to prevent Florida’s wild special places from being paved over completely.  

Protecting land within the corridor protects endangered Florida panthers. Photo by fStop Foundation.

The term Florida Wildlife Corridor might suggest a long, continuous strip of land, like a roadway that goes up the middle of the state. But it’s more like a patchwork of public and private land that crisscrosses the state, stretching from the southern tip of Florida to the border with Alabama and Georgia. It includes state parks, national forests, natural springs, rivers and creeks, coastal beach areas, and working land, including farms, ranches, and forestry operations.

About 10 million acres of the “corridor” are already protected, which means it can’t be sold to developers. But Dimmitt hopes to protect another eight million acres. That’s the “big, audacious goal,” she is reaching for. It’s a lot of land –in total, 18 million acres. Why is it necessary? 

“People are moving to Florida at a record pace. There is rapid transformation of ranch and agricultural land to rooftops,” said Dimmitt. “We need to protect the missing links, the last remaining connecting green spaces in the corridor before they are lost.”

Conservation easements on cattle ranch land helps connect the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Photo by Alex Freeze.

Dimmitt points out that the biodiversity of animals and plants depends on it. As development encroaches on wildlife habitat, the path that many animals have always followed in search of mates, to forage for food, or to find their own territory as they reach maturity, can be disrupted.  And some animals require a big space to roam. For example, Dimmitt explained, the Florida panther requires a territory of some 200 square miles. What happens when there’s an unexpected new highway, or a subdivision in the way? That’s when people and wildlife can bump up against each other – and when it’s serious enough, it can make the news.  

But diminishing wild Florida also has a direct impact on people, said Dimmitt. Water quality, air quality, and mitigation from storms and flooding are all tied to issues of environmental conservation. Then there’s our quality of life in the Sunshine State. “Three percent of the Florida GDP is related to the outdoor recreation economy,” said Dimmitt. “It’s what people expect when they come here. The proximity to nature and the health benefits of open spaces. No one wants to see it entirely converted to rooftops.”  

Florida panther. Photo by the Florida Wildlife Corridor/fStop Foundation.

What’s the next step? Dimmitt and her team work to inspire conservation across a variety of decisionmakers, such as private landowners to get them to permanently protect part of their land from future development through a stewardship agreement. That can mean a conservation easement that allows for existing use (such as farming or cattle ranches), but prevents future development. Or it can be an outright sale of land to state or other entities.

Slowly, it is happening. In 2021, the Florida Legislature unanimously voted in favor of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, officially establishing the corridor as an important conservation initiative. Since then, thousands more acres of both wilderness and working land have come under protection.  

It’s one thing to talk about the need for safeguarding the land. But a close encounter with nature can really tell the story at a deeper level. To raise awareness of its mission, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation has hosted seven expeditions into the Florida wilderness. Dimmitt has participated in all of them, starting with the first one in 2012: a six-week, 1000-mile trek from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp on the border of Florida and Georgia. 

In 2021 teen trekkers participated in a 50-mile Florida Willdlife Corridor expedition from Rainbow River State Park to Homosassa Bay. Photo by Alex Freeze.

Last February, she served as a guide on the first day of a four-day, 57-mile exploration of the Florida Wildlife Corridor from Ocala to Osceola Forest. “I paddled a section of the Ocklawaha River with the group, and they continued on from there,” said Dimmitt. “It was a wonderful day. The Ocklawaha is a lesser-known Florida river and we saw all kinds of wildlife – alligators, river otters, bald eagles.” The expedition included three veterans from three branches of the military and ended up at Camp Blanding, a military training facility south of Jacksonville.  A documentary of the experience can be found at floridawildlifecorridor.org/2023-o2o-operation-connect-protect-and-restore-expedition.

To learn more about the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation and its mission, The Wild Space Gallery is open to the public every Thursday to Saturday, including during the Second Saturday ArtWalk. In addition, on April 14, Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative will deliver a talk about the power of a walk through the woods.

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