Fight over exotic fern threatens future of South Florida wildlife refuge

Exotic plants invade the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Rory Feeney, South Florida Water Management District's bureau chief, explains the impact of exotic plants on the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge.
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Rory Feeney, South Florida Water Management District's bureau chief, explains the impact of exotic plants on the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge.

Old World climbing fern, the monster vine packing 100-foot long tendrils that has infested huge swaths of the Everglades, with a particularly ferocious choke hold on the tree islands of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge on its northern tip, may have finally succeeded in killing the refuge.

Just not in the way anyone expected.

In August, the South Florida Water Management District, which owns the 144,000 acres occupied by the 65-year-old refuge, threatened to abolish a lease agreement with its caretaker, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As landlord, the district said it could no longer abide by its tenant’s lousy housekeeping and failure to control the fern.

The Department of Interior came down and saw the damage and did nothing.

South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonacci

“I don’t know what else you do. Three years ago the [governing board] out of frustration invited the Department of Interior to the refuge so they could see the damage,” said district executive director Pete Antonacci. “The Department of Interior came down and saw the damage and did nothing.”

But the refuge, and a collection of environmental groups that have fiercely bird-dogged restoration of the Everglades, say they were surprised by the district’s abrupt threat after years of collaboration. Since a 2000 lease was negotiated and spelled out a joint effort, the federal wildlife service has spent nearly $30 million to control invasive plants including the fern, now found from Jacksonville south to Cape Sable.

Nancy Marshall said her husband John, who died last year, knocked heads with the district frequently over the refuge named for his uncle, the naturalist whose “Marshall Plan” laid out Everglades restoration. But they usually managed to strike a deal, she said.

“He passed away satisfied that he had done the work he needed to do,” she said. “Would he be frustrated now? I think so. I know so. Would he be over there pounding away? Yes.”

They say the partnership is being torn apart by a new level of animosity and believe the decision is as much about politics, and an effort to rid the state of 30 years of federal meddling, as controlling the fern.

A small group of men who are out of step with everyone in this room have made a decision to cancel the lease. They are totally out of step with all of us. Is there a sugar contact? There may be.

Everglades advocate Nathaniel Reed

“A small group of men who are out of step with everyone in this room have made a decision to cancel the lease,” Nathaniel Reed, the assistant Secretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, who had a hand in nearly every law to restore the Everglades, told a meeting of refuge supporters this month. “They are totally out of step with all of us.”

In laying out their intentions, the water district’s governing board has vowed to protect “plants, wildlife and public use and enjoyment and support scientific research,” and point to the $1.8 billion spent by the state to clean up water and millions more spent on fighting exotic species. But the service says without the refuge, the land will not be managed with wildlife as its focus. The refuge is a first stop for migrating birds and has the highest concentration of alligators in the Everglades.

“The South Florida Water Management District’s mission does not include wildlife conservation or preservation,” said National Wildlife Refuge Association board member Dragana Connaughton. “Their mission is to manage water.”

The logic is not hard to follow, refuge supporters say. Despite gaining major ground in clean-up efforts, parts of the Everglades still fail to meet a court-ordered limit on phosphorus from fertilizer of 10 parts per billion in water flowing into the refuge and Everglades National Park. If the land is no longer a refuge, the district could make the case in court that the limit no longer applies, said Martha Musgrove, a regional director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, which helped collect 67,000 signatures on petitions sent to Gov. Rick Scott Friday to honor the lease.

And if the restriction no longer applies, the state could also move to lift the same limit set in state standards without fear of violating the decree, Musgrove said.

“They want to set their own water quality standards and not have a federal court looking over their shoulder,” she said.

45,000The number of tree islands remaining in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Supporters of the refuge are also concerned about how the district manages water coming into wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now sets a schedule for the refuge that includes a range of water levels to protect the unique tree islands that make up the largest stands remaining in the Everglades. Refuge manager Rolf Olson said water is generally kept as close to optimal levels as possible to preserve more than 45,000 tree islands, which provide shelter for a unique collection of plants and animals in the Everglades.

In two other water conservation areas to the south managed by the district, the number of tree islands has fallen over the years, he said. Of the 40 islands in the middle area, 36 are considered dead ghost islands. In the largest conservation area that straddles Broward and Miami-Dade counties, only 557 remained in 1995, down from 1,251 in 1904.

Olson also worries the district will allow recreational airboats into the area, which could worsen the fern infestation by blowing around the plant’s microscopic spores.

What the two sides do agree on is the need to control Lygodium micryphyllum, an ornamental plant that first escaped a Martin County nursery in the 1950s. Since 1995, it has increased 604 percent across the entire 5,400-square mile ecosystem, according to a joint federal and state study. Scientists say it may yet be the toughest invasive pest to fight.

“It populates an area regardless of habitat,” said Rory Feeney, the district’s bureau chief for land resources. “It can be a tree island out in the sawgrass. It can be in the mangroves. And it grows incredibly fast.”

Tony Pernas, the supervisory botanist with the Big Cypress National Preserve, has been tracking the spread for years and, with the district, has conducted aerial mapping surveys as far south as Cape Sable. The last time he mapped the fern in 2013, he counted 25,000 vine-choked acres. The state’s tracking map shows sightings across two-thirds of the state.

What makes controlling the vine nearly impossible is where it goes — in remote marshes — and how it grows, blanketing anything it can find in thick mats. It can also shimmy up trees to form a dense, choking canopy and fuel intense fires that trees might otherwise survive.

Aerial spraying would be the weapon of choice, but can only be used if the fern is dense enough to prevent herbicides from reaching plants undertneath, including native ferns, which would die, Pernas said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s invasive plant laboratory in Fort Lauderdale is also looking at bugs to attack the plant, but none have so far managed to succeed.

That leaves herbicides and hard labor. Workers are airboated into marshes, where they wade through sometimes thigh-high water, whacking at vines with machetes and spraying herbicides on roots. On tree islands where the vine grows well over their heads, Pernas said workers “poodle cut” the vine by hacking out chunks in the middle and treating the roots.

What’s important is not only how do we remove it, but remove it with minimum impact on the native systems.

University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti

“What’s important is not only how do we remove it, but remove it with minimum impact on the native systems,” said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti. “It’s incredibly labor intensive. When you get out in the wildlife refuge, that really speaks to the breadth and depth of the problem and how hard it is to deal with everything.”

In 2014, the agencies agreed controlling the fern will cost about $25 million over five years with another $15 million needed to keep it under control for at least five more years. While the license agreement set 13 performance measurements including controlling the fern by 2017, it intentionally did not set a dollar amount because the refuge can never be certain how much Congress will give it, Olson said, although the testy negotiation did help trigger an infusion of federal money to treat invasive plants, which jumped from just $41,000 in 2000 to $1.3 million in 2001.

Still, Rolson said, district officials make it seem like Fish and Wildlife officials have done nothing when in fact they meet regularly and even hammered out a 2015 memo of understanding vowing to spend between $1.5 million and nearly $2 million through 2018. Between federal money and money from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which receives federal tax dollars to manage refuges, spending for the last two years has equaled or topped $5 million.

But the district says year-to-year budgeting is not the same as committing to the five-year, $25 million plan and was miffed when the Department of Interior failed this year to ask Congress for the money.

“I agree we shouldn’t be sabre-rattling, but if you own property you should care for it,” Antonacci said. “The [water management district] owns the property and we need to care for it. We need to care for it either by urging the people now responsible for it to do it, or seek some other solution.”

Eliminating the refuge could also put the district in a legal fix. In 2000, when the state and the feds were renegotiating their lease, the Department of Interior issued a legal opinion finding that the refuge was intended to partly mitigate the environmental damage caused by the massive Central and South Florida drainage project that created the three reservoirs. So long as the refuge also serves as a water conservation area for flood control, the district “has an obligation to fulfill its part of the bargain,” the opinion said.

“It stands to reason that when Congress appropriates hundreds of millions of dollars in order to carry out beneficial flood control purposes,” it said, “it would not be satisfied with only partial mitigation.”

Altering the use might require the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a lengthy assessment of potential environmental damage, an ironic twist.

“There’s no white hats in this story,” said Olson, the refuge manager. “We are behind on Lygodium. It is an ecological issue. It is a threat, almost a potential disaster. But we are doing good on other things and it seems extreme to throw us away because we can’t achieve this one impossible thing that everyone is having problems with.”