East Ridge retiree pushes for restoration of rare pine rocklands in Miami-Dade

In a densely vegetated area in Southwest Miami-Dade, not far from the tile-roofed homes of suburbia and the whoosh of rush-hour traffic, slender South Florida slash pines jab the sky. Closer to the ground, where limestone outcroppings can trip even the most seasoned hiker, the saw palmetto and silver palms spread their fan-like leaves. A prickly pear cactus is about to bloom and the spiny teethed leaves of a new quail berry bush blush a deep, surprising green.

A few months ago this wedge of native pine rockland, an imperiled ecosystem that exists only in southern Florida and parts of the Bahamas, was overrun by hearty Burma reed, a tall grass-like weed with plume flowerets often found along canal banks in South Florida. Other invasive plants, including Brazilian Pepper and Florida Holly, muscled out native species, growing so thickly they often blocked light from reaching the native undergrowth.

“But now,” says Sarah V. Martin, a field biologist for the South Florida-based Institute for Regional Conservation, “we’re getting a handle on it.”

Martin stands on a brown, crunchy bed of dead Burma reed. On one side is pine rockland not yet free of invaders. There, the Burma reed throws up an impenetrable wall of vegetation. But on the other side, the pine rockland has been rescued by workers of the 30-year-old non-profit dedicated to the protection, restoration, and long-term management of such ecosystems. In the restored area, the March sun shines through a dappled canopy of slash pines. A balmy breeze flutters the saw palmetto.

A red shouldered hawk swoops down to snatch a twig, startling the small group gathered around Martin. It soars away, probably to continue building its nest. For a few moments, the wonder of this unexpected sight silences even the other birds.

“What we’re doing is not a silver bullet,” Martin continues. “It’s not going to stop the invasive species. There’s still the need for long-term management.”

And while that long-term management will fall on IRC, it was the gimlet eye and the devotion of one woman that guaranteed a piece of old Florida would continue to thrive in the middle of relentless development.

Nancy Fehr, 86, who describes herself as a “plant and butterfly lover wherever I’ve lived,” was the first to realize that this wilderness so close to her home at East Ridge Retirement Community in Cutler Bay was in desperate need of restoration. Over the years she had ventured into the edges of the area with a conservation biologist from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, where she has been a longtime volunteer. Nothing, however, had been done to tame it.

In 2011, Fehr met Martin, who helps coordinate the IRC’s Pine Rockland Initiative, a grant program funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks to restore pine rockland fragments that remain. With Martin’s guidance, Fehr took the restoration proposal before the retirement community’s town council. As chairwoman of the Beautification Committee, she had lots of pull, and the restoration project received unanimous approval and seed money that was matched by IRC.

“We couldn’t have done this without her,” said Martin of Fehr. “She recognized what an important fragment this was and she fought for it.”

Since January, Martin, as well as IRC field supervisor Rasheed Bradley and restoration technician Patty Amador, have hacked away at the trees and plants that don’t belong there. They work four days a week at a job that is physically and mentally demanding. As they inch along they must make sure not to destroy any of the native plants or the habitats of such animals as the gopher tortoise and the rare atala butterfly. They can’t predict when they will finish.

The East Ridge restoration project encompasses three acres on an eight-acre tract of land known as the Larsh Hammock area of the retirement community. As is typical of pine rocklands, it is home to rare plant and animal species, including six federally endangered plants and seven candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In Miami-Dade, only 2 percent of the original 185,000 acres of pine rockland remain. About 500 acres, on private and public lands, have been restored by the IRC, but existing swathes continue to be threatened by development, invasive pest plants and fire suppression. (Regular fire is vital to the long-term health of pine rockland habitat and naturally occurs every three to seven years.) An estimated 680 acres of pine rockland remain in private ownership, spread across 112 separate and isolated fragments of land that are surrounded by housing developments, industrial parks and agricultural lands.

Fehr is passionate about their defense. At East Ridge’s pine rockland, she gamely maneuvers the terrain dressed in sneakers, shorts, scoop-neck tee and a dangling pair of dragonfly earrings. She points to a coontie plant and listens attentively as Martin talks about the signs of possible burrowing by the gopher tortoise.

Fehr has lived in East Ridge for 11 years. Originally from Connecticut, she tools around the 75 acres of the community in a golf cart, naming different trees as she passes them. She has belonged to as many as five garden clubs and is a judge at national flower shows. Her neighbors know about her work.

“I saw a shrike,” calls out one as Fehr drives by. The loggerhead shrike is a gray, black and white songbird that frequents pine rocklands.

Once the IRC restoration is completed, Fehr hopes that “the best case scenario” may eventually include a special walkway for her neighbors to stroll through this slice of old Florida.

“Even if they can’t come out here,” Fehr says, “I hope they realize that conservation is something we want to continue doing in this community.”