The bottom line (we’re talking bay bottoms, partly, but no pun intended): Palm Beach’s projects seek to manufacture conditions that are already present at Big Edwards Island and Roberts Bay, courtesy of Mother Nature. (Except for the paved visitor’s playground at Peanut Island, where visitors can even tour a bunker built to accommodate a visiting JFK. It’s a much larger and more developed facility than what most expect in the quiet and majestic Roberts Bay). Since nature’s bounty is present, and expanding out from the shallows of Big Edwards Island, a restoration there a la Palm Beach would have little to gain and much to harm. Yes, Palm Beach’s projects frequently remove Australian pines and other “non-native” vegetation. Yes, too, a few miles south, in Gulf Stream, they preserve their pines with care. Neither one, it seems, bears much on conditions in Roberts Bay—except to underscore how special, and how lucky, is Sarasota to have a natural bay that’s been able to survive the assaults of dredgers, engineers and developers (at least so far)—without being forced to cope with anything as radical as the gender-changing operation that made a salt water bay out of the Lake Worth Lagoon.
Nor is there much that matters to Sarasota in the radical agenda of some ecologists who propose erasing all but “native” species in every place—a questionable goal especially in Florida, where 65% of the current human population was born elsewhere, and which is a hub for inter-continental travel. Of course, it might serve the state’s ecology for all Chicagoans to be shipped back to Illinois (just joking). But to say that the future of the state or its bays depends on nativist cleansing, geographic or ethnic, is to deny the past (Jacaranda trees were once newcomers to Florida, for example, and even the legendary apple tree was brought to America by 17th-century colonists) and to turn one’s back on the future (about one out of seven of the new species—plant or animal--introduced to the U.S. is “invasive” in some respect, estimates ecologist Daniel Simberloff).
With the prospect of ever more travel (for flora, fauna, and people), surely the wise response to new species is to concentrate control efforts on the places and “aliens” where the dangers are most significant and responses most likely to make a difference. Such as, for example, the aquatic weed hydrilla, an import from the Indian Ocean that can choke fresh-water lakes with dense weedy mats, clogging motorboat propellers and blocking sunlight from plants that nurture fish.
For the pines on Big Edwards Island, we’ve not found dangers clear or present, even when looking across the state at Palm Beach County. Yet that county’s projects are an example--of the industrial approach to estuaries, using mechanical equipment and relying on a team of designers and engineers to rebuild what fails to function as an estuary should. It’s ambitious, expensive and energy-intensive. When necessary, it’s the speediest, most direct, can-do and gung-ho way to get the job done. Like building an expressway, say. Or a dam.
Fortunately, at least in lucky Sarasota, there’s another way, more natural, less expensive, and less intrusive. Just as, years ago, there were less threatening alternatives when the Army Corps of Engineers built hydropower dams bank-to-bank across the state of Washington’s Snake River. Innocently intended as a source of clean electricity, those dams have so decimated the Pacific salmon hatchery that scientists in several Western states now urge their removal or reconstruction.
The better way for Sarasota came into focus as I looked into the last remaining item on my list of pine criticisms: the impact of their seeds. So let’s take a look at what this issue has to say about the pines, and also about us—about how we respond to the Bay, about the budgets we favor in today’s economic climate, and about the technologies we prefer to rely on in the age of global warming.
By themselves, out in the bay on one isolated island, it should be clear by now that the pines are a very minor problem, if indeed a problem at all. One woman’s “mono-culture”–-the crowding out of other upland plants—is another’s cool and shady forest. No one has argued (yet, at any rate) that it’s more important for this small island to become a repository of increased species diversity than it is for any of the zillion other of the county’s local environments. (Just a few blocks away from Big Edwards Island, in fact, the neighborhood I live in has a little pocket park that could happily support additional diverse plants; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar spaces throughout the county.)
But, as University of Florida professor Kenneth Langeland pointed out in the Herald-Tribune’s article, Big Edwards’ pines (technically known as casuarina equisetifolia) are not all that isolated, because their seeds can spread elsewhere in the wind, as is true also of such pines elsewhere in the county. Throughout the eight miles of nearby Siesta Key, on the inland (or “upland”) parts of the barrier island, for example, there are a couple dozen scattered pine clusters that are even more likely to spread their seeds about, since many face stronger winds than blow in the more sheltered Roberts Bay.
For decades, in fact, it’s clear that the Australian pine seeds have been flying around in the wind--around Siesta Key and Roberts Bay. And the results—on display for all to see—are not what pine critics fear or imagine. While there are Australian pine clusters sprinkled inland on Siesta Key and elsewhere in the county, there aren’t all that many, and there are even fewer places where one see adolescent pines or young adults. On private lands, it’s easy for gardeners who don’t desire a new “volunteer” to pull up the baby shoots—as all gardeners do whenever paid a visit by any of the hundreds of possible plant species that waft about in the air. It may not be the most enjoyable part of gardening, but there’s nothing special about the pines in this regard, and pulling up young shoots is quite effective. No doubt it’s nature and nurture both that explain why one sees few Australian pines on private lands in Sarasota, and fewer still that are adolescent or young adults.
The same holds true on public lands. For example, along almost all of the dunes that run for miles to the rear of Siesta’s sandy Gulf beaches (one place where tall trees can cause problems, as described earlier), the plants that dominate—by an overwhelming margin--are typical low-lying sand dune vegetation. There are a few, but only a few, tall trees of any kind.
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.