Clyde Butcher said he gets the question all the time. “People ask me do I want to save the [Florida] panther and my answer is no; I want to save where they live and where they eat and then the panther will take care of itself."
“We need a trail,” Butcher said. “A trail for people and a trail for animals.”
Sarasota County moved on each end Dec. 4 when county officials introduced the first phase of an eco-park and reserve for Walton Ranch. The project, expected to begin in May, calls for public recreational amenities and room to stretch for a parade of wildlife in a 3,800-acre haven of marshes, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks.
The Myakka Island Conservation Corridor (with map) features the 1,067-acre Triangle Ranch, the 720-acre Sheps Island Ranch and the 5,774-acre Orange Hammock Ranch. The land was folded into the Myakka Ranchlands Project at meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council Thursday and Friday in Tallahassee.
The new ARC-approved list is expected to go to Governor Rick Scott before May.
Despite its heft, Walton Ranch represents only 3.6 percent of the big picture. When county commissioners approved a $23.5 million state/county deal for the ranch in 2010, the goal was linking packages of land in a 106,000-acre conservation corridor that includes Myakka River State Park to the west, and the RV Griffin Reserve to the east.
Commissioners are expected to vote on the plan in January.
Butcher, the iconic landscape photographer, is on the board of advisors for the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which helped the county acquire Walton Ranch and the adjacent 3,900-acre Longino Ranch. He photographed Walton Ranch in 2011 while artist-in-residence at the foundation.
“There’s some great natural resources there,” Butcher said Wednesday from his Everglades cottage. “The area is just as good as any of the parks we have. … We got some great shots. Nice beautiful swamps, hardwood hammocks; it has some great stuff.”
The county will run Walton Ranch under terms of a conservation easement with the Southwest Water Management District, said Mike Sosadeeter, park planner for Sarasota County. Drawing boards were on display for two public comment sessions at North Port's Morgan Family Community Center, roughly 8 miles to a ranch entrance near Toledo Blade Boulevard.
Sosadeeter said trails will vary in length, offering loops for hikers and walkers of all abilities. The broader goal is for a trail linking the Peace River in DeSoto County to the Myakka River.
“What [conservationists] want to do is link everything from Flamingo to Georgia. That’s the goal,” Butcher said.
The master plan at Walton Ranch proposes 19 acres of rugged no-frills camping; 14 acres of drive-up camping; 20 acres of equestrian camping; and 13.5 acres of picnic grounds. A 19-mile network of trails is planned. Three wildlife viewing areas, a youth lodge, an equestrian center with a pasture, and a "Cracker Cowboy" educational center was also on the drawing board.
Parking will be contained on 4.5 acres at the trailhead. A helipad will be built on an old landing strip for emergencies.
Cattle ranching, like it has for years, will continue on 2,730 acres.
“The ranchers are very careful about how they treat their cattle,” Butcher said. “And they like to have nice places for their cowboys to have lunch.”