Tampa Bay area photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. advocates for wild Florida. His powerful images of our own miraculous wildernesses and passionate education about saving what’s left landed him a slot as a speaker for National Geographic LIVE! He kicks off his road speaker career right here in Ferguson Hall on Tues., Feb. 26 with Wild Florida: Hidden in Plain Sight.
As we type, Carlton is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, setting up his signature remote camera traps for panthers somewhere in the vicinity of Labelle, FL. Last week, we caught up with Carlton on his lunch break to talk about his work and his upcoming engagement at The Straz.
Caught in the Act: We want to start with the story of how you ended up giving this talk at The Straz. Last year when National Geographic LIVE! speaker Cristina Mittermeier was here, you were in the audience. And you guys went out to dinner afterwards with Sarah Gecan, our Nat Geo marketer. She was so taken by your passion for Florida wildlife and conservation in general that when the opening came up this season, she was the one who said, “Get Carlton.”
Carlton Ward, Jr.: That’s awesome. That’s very cool. Yeah, this is my first Nat Geo Live talk on the road. I did one at National Geographic headquarters last March, which was when the people from the Nat Geo Live program saw my presentation there. That’s when we started talking about putting me on the schedule for late 2019-2020. Then this cancellation came up [on The Straz season], so I’m getting to do my first on-the-road talk at home.
CITA: And we are pumped. The show is selling like hotcakes, Carlton. You are really well-loved. You probably know that, especially from the success of the Florida Wildlife Corridor films. People have been really enthusiastic about the fact that you’re on the season this year.
CW, Jr: Oh, that’s super cool. Yeah, it’s a hometown audience and we’ve had such good media following from WUSF and other things on the topics I work on, so that helps. The reason I do what I do is to raise the awareness for the wildlife and the land conservation that we need to do to sustain it, in Florida.
CITA: Environmental issues can be thorny topics in Florida because Florida’s boom was a development boom. So, it’s ingrained in the cultural psychology that we’ve got to build, we’ve got to develop, we have to keep growing.
CW, Jr: Yes. I focus on animals like the Florida panther and the Florida black bear because they utilize large landscapes and they show us the land that we need to protect. Not just for them, but for all the other wildlife and for ourselves. We’re losing more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat every year to development, and we need to accelerate the pace of land conservation to balance that out if we want to have viable wildlife habitat in the future.
CW, Jr: Florida cannot sustain the human population that’s projected to be here over the next 50 years unless we get smarter and do things differently. The same land that is the path of the panther is also the headwaters of the Everglades and the headwaters of the St. Johns River and the water supply for most of Florida’s population. So, steering development away from these last corridors of green land is in our self-interest, as people who are aspiring to live here and have any quality of life in this state.
We have to start building up and not out. We can continue to develop, and we can continue to accommodate the population growth, but we’re going to have to do slightly higher density development, building closer to our urban cores, and not doing the hundreds of thousands of acres of tract homes every year that will end up undoing all the conservation progress from the past 50 years.
The cool thing is we still have this opportunity in Florida where—because of our agricultural corridor and the fact that we still have millions of acres of ranches and timber lands and farms and groves—we still have a chance to sustain a connected green corridor that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for that agriculture.
CITA: That’s something that you try to do, in your photojournalism and with the work you do for Florida Wildlife Corridor, is building relationships between all the different types of people who have interest in the undeveloped lands. Correct?
CW, Jr: Yes. I mean, … it’s just the conservation priorities seem to get lost. And it’s not because Floridians don’t want land protection. It’s because the specific needs for that land protection are kind of “out of sight, out of mind.” For example, we have amazing natural areas, but we don’t have something like the Rocky Mountains where you can sit in a city like Denver and know that you have an important wild space that is the source of all your water and your clean air and your food. With Florida being so flat, we don’t see it. We don’t recognize the Green Swamp north of Tampa as the headwaters of five rivers and the water supply for most of the Tampa Bay area. Because it’s only 100 feet elevation higher than Tampa. It’s hidden in plain sight.
So that is a theme. I think if people see and understand these areas, through pictures, through maps, it will lead to policies and decisions that help preserve them.
CITA: You’ve been involved in wild Florida your whole life. You’re a multi-generational Floridian. Would you consider yourself just a country boy? Would you put yourself in that category?
CW, Jr: No.
CITA: Can you talk a little bit about that?
CW, Jr: I have a pretty good set of redneck skills, but I grew up in the suburbs of Clearwater. I grew up on the coast with a family ranch and family heritage in the heartlands. So, I kind of had one foot in each world my whole life. I think that’s why I’m as motivated as I am. Because if you grow up in Tampa or Clearwater, you’ll end up caring about the water in the bay, but you don’t end up knowing about the Green Swamp or the Peace River. Or, if you grow up in Arcadia or Wauchula, you may or may not see the pace that the houses are exploding out of Orlando and Tampa and Bradenton and moving towards you and threatening the land around you. Being in both of those worlds, I think, helped me have the perspective I have now.
CITA: In all your work, what have you discovered that is the most inspiring for people who are unfamiliar with Florida’s environment? What inspires people most to get involved or get interested or learn more?
CW, Jr: I find that … with my photo lapse of bears and panthers, people don’t know those animals exist in Florida. And that’s a starting point, [for people to realize] that Florida still has wild enough places to support large, wide-ranging wildlife. I really get a lot of comments on my Instagram feed and other places, where people had no idea that these things exist in Florida. It’s also true when I photograph and publish pictures of Florida cattle ranches. People don’t know that we have that type of land and those type of people who are so deeply connected to the land. The Seminole tribe also. People think about the Hard Rock Café maybe, but don’t know that we have Native Americans, an unconquered tribe of Native Americans, living in The Everglades. Still.
CITA: If we can play devil’s advocate for a second … let’s say we want to come down to Florida and retire, so we’re interested in golf and shopping and having a leisurely life. We don’t care about the panther or the black bear. How do you explain to people why a wildlife corridor would matter?
CW, Jr: On one hand, I’d say to those people we are not separate from nature. We are buffered from nature by our technologies. But, if the environment can’t support wildlife, it ultimately may be missing some things to support us. Another one kind of common element is water. The strongest argument for why we need to care about these wild places is the water and the quality of life for people. It just so happens that water is the common ground that sustains wildlife and sustains working agriculture. It also sustains rural culture and heritage. Just look to last summer to the red tides and the algae blooms. We’re seeing at a large scale exactly how our coastal way of life is negatively impacted because we’re not taking care of interior Florida the way we need to. Everything in Florida’s connected.
CITA: We really are so excited about your talk here. We feel pretty privileged that we’ll be your kickoff venue for what’s probably going to become a very illustrious speaking career with Nat Geo.
CW, Jr: Okay. I really appreciate it. I’ll be seeing you soon.
Don’t miss Carlton Ward, Jr. for National Geographic LIVE! Tues., Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.