Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Big Cypress: Exotic plant eradication will benefit Florida panthers

By Jeremy Cox
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One down, seven to go.

Three years after officials celebrated the killing of the last melaleuca tree at Big Cypress National Preserve, a new plan calls for giving a 100-fold increase to the preserve’s exotic plant eradication budget. The goal: to keep the fast-spreading melaleuca away and bring seven other unwanted plants in the Big Cypress to the same fate.

For the past few years, park managers at nine national parks in southern Florida and the Caribbean have been developing a strategy for dealing with exotic plants. The 1,000-page draft plan, released last month, recommends spending up to $634 million to poison, burn and hand-clear exotic plants and replant infested areas with natives.

“It’s not likely we’ll be able to eradicate everything,” said Sandy Hamilton, a National Park Service environmental protection specialist in Denver.

If park service officials approve the plan and Congress provides funding, land managers would treat 155,000 of Big Cypress’ 729,000 acres, or one out of every five acres. Spread across a decade, the effort would have a price tag of about $38 million a year, 100 times what the preserve now spends on exotic-removal projects.

The National Park Service plan would replace an exotic-removal program that has little organization and is driven by available funding. The new system would provide a ranking of problem plants, a way to monitor treatments and mitigation for any environmental collateral damage.

Officials are targeting nine exotic plants: the Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Guinea grass, lather leaf, melaleuca, old world climbing fern, tan tan, lime berry and genip.

A 20-year effort in Big Cypress resulted in the killing of the last known melaleuca tree there in 2003. The preserve once had an estimated 120,000 melaleucas, an Australian native brought to Florida by developers in the early 1900s to soak up the Everglades.

Everglades National Park would see 197,000 of its acres treated at a cost of $223 million, under the plan.

The National Park Service held six public meetings across southern Florida and the Caribbean, including a meeting in Naples in March 2004, to formulate the plan. The agency is taking public comment on the draft version until Nov. 22.

Officials considered three alternatives: staying with the existing system, prioritizing infested areas and treating them, and doing the same as the second alternative but adding a restoration feature.

By replanting natives such as red maples, slash pines and pond apples, officials expect to quicken the recovery.

Officials plan to target infested areas that pose a threat to plants that creatures on the brink of extinction depend on the most. Any ecological change can reverberate up the food chain, officials say.

For example, melaleuca tend to overrun wetlands filled with swamp lilies. Those lilies are a favorite food of deer. If the deer population declines, the same can be expected to happen to the endangered Florida panther.

Other areas that would receive priority would be those near highways and public hiking trails and those that are easily accessible, according to the report.

The plan could be approved as early as May, Hamilton said. increase_exotic_plant_eradicatio/?local_news

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