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New tool in Everglades restoration: trees

There was a time when the entire eastern edge of Florida's Everglades was fringed with thick stands of cypress trees, many of them towering more than 100 feet into the sky.

These giants had lived hundreds of years draped in Spanish moss, with roots anchored deep in the black-water muck.

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Now, nearly a century after virtually all the great cypresses were cut down for lumber, a small group of conservationists are fighting to restore remnants of the ancient forests.

But they are facing an uphill battle, at the very moment that Congress and the state of Florida are prepared to spend $7.8 billion for Everglades restoration.

"What the early naturalists [in the late 1800s] were absolutely enamored with when they came to south Florida was North America's only subtropical moist forest," says Larry Harris, a wildlife ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "That forest is literally being driven off the continent, and no one is even acknowledging it, let alone trying to stop it."

In an effort to spark interest in the ancient forests, the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation, based in Palm Beach, Fla., is assembling 300 volunteers willing to brave mud and mosquitoes to plant 10,000 new cypress trees at the edge of this wildlife refuge southeast of Lake Okeechobee.

The Feb. 10 planting is viewed as a demonstration project in the hope that it and other tree plantings might prompt state and federal officials to consider whether bringing back south Florida's majestic forests shouldn't be part of the overall Everglades restoration plan.

The issue arises at a time of enormous interest and support for the revival of the Everglades. Its restoration is a project billed as the largest, most expensive such environmental program in history.

Yet it is not without its critics. Some argue that the plan developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and approved last year by Congress focuses too narrowly on restoring the waterflow to the so-called river of grass. It ignores larger regionwide factors like fringe forests and tree-island hammocks that are important to maintaining water quality and wildlife habitat.

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"They literally cannot think beyond that river of grass metaphor," says Mr. Harris, referring to the subtitle of Marjory Stoneman Douglas's classic book on the Everglades. Despite her title, Ms. Douglas's book argues strongly that the Everglades is much more than just a wet grassland. She describes it as a massive interrelationship of ecosystems encompassing most of the southern half of the Florida peninsula - including associated forests.

Cypress trees have historically played an important role in the Everglades, and throughout the southeast. They are able to absorb excess nutrients from the water that might otherwise cause cattails and other fast-growing plants to crowd out native saw grass.

The trees help remove mercury and other toxic metals from the water by safely lodging it within the subsurface peat. They provide critical habitat for a wide range of animals. And in perhaps their most important function, large cypress trees are enormously efficient oxygen factories.

Howard Odum, an ecology professor at the University of Florida, has long studied the cleansing attributes of cypress wetlands. He says such restored cypress wetlands in or near the Everglades would be a natural part of the landscape and could perform the same water-cleansing job that Everglades restoration planners are attempting to accomplish in man-made filter marshes.

Professors Odum and Harris say that the best example of a natural filter marsh was observed in the late 1800s on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee. It was a tangled, impenetrable jungle of pond apple, fig, and cypress trees extending 20 miles across and several miles to the south. When nutrient-rich water overflowed the lake's southern banks, it entered the dense jungle which stripped the water of nutrients, creating downstream conditions that favored saw grass.

Many of the problems in the Everglades began when the jungle was cut and the land drained to grow sugar cane. Some conservationists suggest reestablishing a portion of the pond-apple jungle, but farmers are opposed to giving up their most productive fields.

That wasn't an issue at the Loxahatchee refuge, where wildlife managers are seeking to restore as closely as possible the existing landscape of the eastern edge of the Everglades, including cypress wetlands.

"We feel ... that we should try to replicate what was here historically," says Refuge manager Mark Musaus. "We are trying to provide for the natural diversity of plant species that attracts the whole spectrum of wildlife."

John Marshall, president of the Marshall Foundation, says scientists will closely monitor the 10,000 newly planted cypress trees to document their full effect in attracting wildlife and cleansing the environment.

"This is just a pilot project," Mr. Marshall says. But he hopes it will encourage others to plant trees, and perhaps prompt Everglades restoration officials to consider Florida's ancient forests as a part of their restoration plan.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society