Nature Does It Best

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Water does flow downhill, so Phillippi’s pollution can affect Roberts Bay. Septic tanks along Phillippi have long been a priority problem, for example. But the Creek has seen progress too since 1990, so the experts are currently debating the proper grading standards for that Creek.

Tomasko argues that the widespread seagrass recovery is a better sign of water quality than some tests for nitrogen and other nutrients that regulators do. He may be right. Still, the state’s priority list is based on evidence and ranks all area water bodies by a single benchmark. Bay advocates should demand a focus on priority projects, judged to be such by region-wide evidence—especially in tight times. If a better list is made, then let’s by all means consider it. Meanwhile, to those seeking to improve the bay, it seems obvious that available funds should be used for the “high priority” cleanups until their priority drops, at the very least. Except for mercury, where new preventive steps may need devising, there are proven solutions to the problems listed as high priority by the state: focus on the tributaries, waste treatment and storm runoff from sewers, roads and lawns.

In the pines, the pines, where the sun never shines…

What the paper did correctly report is that Australian Pines are an invasive species. Legally, this means that most Floridians can’t plant new ones, but existing trees are a matter for case by case decision—cut them, thin them, or let them be, it’s the owner’s choice. On Sanibel Island, for example, concerned citizens and realtors feared that city officials might seek to eradicate their pines, so they sought a special law blocking such efforts, unless a tree grows too close to “public infrastructure” such as streetlights and can’t be fixed by trimming. The City Council passed it unanimously. State officials have made other similar “hands-off” agreements—protecting the pines, for example, in Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, and even permitting new ones to be planted (by act of the legislature) along Ocean Drive in Palm Beach County’s Gulf Stream.

Tricolored Heron Visits Big
Edwards Island

The trees tolerate salt spray, one reason they were deliberately imported to Florida more than a century ago to fight erosion and provide shade. Also known as casuarinas, they are not true pines, but deciduous trees that shed their needles. They absorb carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Because they are large and grow fairly rapidly, some speculate that Australian Pines may absorb more CO2 than other common Florida trees, but no data exists about this. Ecologists can get emotional about their disdain for them, because their thick green canopy and carpet of needle-like leaves tend to block the growth of other plants.

Naturalists like Sanibel’s Holly Downing say the trees have shallow roots, which allow hurricanes to blow them over more easily. “That’s a myth,” counters arborist C. Way Hoyt, who tends approximately 400 of them beside the ocean in Gulf Stream. “Their roots grow just about like other trees, “ adds he. Hoyt reports that the past decade’s hurricanes blew over more so-called “native” trees (live oak and olive, for example) than Australian Pines (only 3 of his 400 succumbed to wind). In Sanibel, Downing says the pines along Periwinkle Way and elsewhere were more likely to blow down than other trees during 2004’s Hurricane Charley.

Like coconut palms and other tall trees, pines that grow too close to a Gulf or ocean shore can shade small plants that help to build sand dunes. Trees that get too close on such beaches can also block the path back to the sea for hatchlings (of turtles, say, or, in the Everglades, American crocodiles).

But that is not the case on Big Edwards Island, located in a sheltered Bay, not the Gulf or an Ocean shore. Nor is there a Periwinkle Way—or any road at all--on Big Edwards, which is uninhabited (by people, anyway).

Then there are our feathered friends. While the pines seem to attract ospreys, anhingas, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks and the occasional eagle, among others, it’s common to hear that a mixture of other trees attracts more bird species.

For such reasons, efforts to remove Australian Pines in Florida are supported by, among others, a much beloved authority on invasive plants, Professor Kenneth Langeland of the University of Florida, a former vice-Chairman of the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC) who was quoted in the Herald’s article.

But if you are talking water quality , inter-tidal habitat, estuary pollution, or Roberts Bay, the way the Herald-Tribune was, and the way I have been for a year--you might want to ask Professor Langeland and the other experts at the FLEPPC if it makes any sense to believe the pines on Big Edwards—or their removal—affect water quality for good or ill. The scientific and expert answer is no, they don’t. In that respect, they're just like other common plants.

Mangroves, mangroves everywhere

Some have argued that the reason to cut down the pines is to plant mangroves—because mangroves do support water quality and sea creatures. The article repeats this view. The important thing to notice when people make this argument is that it doesn’t fit the “ground truth” on Big Edwards Island, which is already the second-largest mangrove island in Roberts Bay. A thicket of tall mangroves between 12 and 16 feet tall borders the island for a length of more than 3,000 feet. “ Go look for yourself,” I urged Doug Sword. I decided to call Professor Langeland last spring after I saw 10-year-old diagrams and 6-year-old pictures that showed that Big Edwards island was long ago—as it is today -- chock full of flourishing mangroves, fat and tall. They’ve persisted for decades, ALONG WITH the flourishing pines.

(When I asked a county consultant at a 2009 presentation why a “restoration” project would target a mangrove island, he responded by asking me: “Are you sure they’re mangroves there?” This answer flabbergasted me—because to me it meant, here’s a professional seeking support for a new artificial approach to an island that has sat in the Bay for more than 50 years, and he hadn’t looked closely at it.)

Kenneth M. Pierce, now retired in Sarasota, FL, began his career in publishing as a journalist, winning awards at Time Magazine, co-founding the Chicago Journalism Review, and editing the Columbia Journalism Review. His past consulting clients include National Wildlife Magazine.