Capri Connection: Pepper busting Calvary has arrived

Ann Hall
Crew members begin their work of ridding the mangrove hammock along Capri Boulevard of invasive plants that are detrimental to the ecosystem.

“The Calvary has arrived,” wrote Luke Larson last week to the Coconuttele, Isles of Capri’s informal internal email communication network.

“I just noticed a crew of five men working the vegetation along Capri Boulevard.”

After asking for information from Rene Wilson, Rookery Bay communications coordinator, Larson received a description of the activities that left him shouting for joy. Larson learned that the work he was observing was a cooperative effort of the Department of Environmental Protection and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to treat several hundred acres of natural upland habitat that have become infested with invasive exotic plants.

Larson asked that island residents be informed of this ongoing project to restore the wildlife habitat on Capri’s doorstep.

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“I also want to reinforce the worthiness of the efforts of our Brazilian Pepper Bustin’ Parties,” said Larson.

Among other definitions, Webster’s Dictionary defines the word party as “a social gathering of invited guests involving eating, drinking and entertainment.” It is no wonder that Larson would call each of his gatherings with his group of volunteers to “bust the peppers out,” a party. They certainly come invited. The volunteers also share energy boosting snacks, and drink lots of water during each of their parties. The entertainment comes in the form of playing with chain saws, machetes, loppers, tree trimmers, and wearing protective party clothing. By all means this fits at least one definition of a party.

The most recent Pepper Bustin Party held in November features some of the fearless volunteers who came to rid their beloved Isles of invasive plants that choke the habitat for native plants and wildlife.  Luke Larson, coordinator of the event is on the far right.

Larson is passionate about maintaining a healthy environment in which both people and wildlife can flourish. Larson began to put together a plan to rid the Isles of Capri of the invasive Brazilian Pepper. It was disturbing to him to see exotics choking out his cherished mangroves. On Sept. 20, 2014, Larson initiated the effort in connection with the annual Collier Coastal Cleanup Project which is a part of the Keep Collier Beautiful Program. With permission and assistance from Collier County and Rookery Bay officials, Larson has since hosted four Capri Pepper Bustin Parties to date. Another is in the planning stages.

“I want to give Rookery Bay Reserve a big thank you,” said Larson. “The first invasive they are targeting on their list for removal is the Brazilian Pepper,” Larson said. “Our fearless Earth Balance crew returned to their work clearing exotics from Capri Boulevard after four days of rain out. I stopped to talk with the crew for about 30 seconds before the mosquitoes chased me away. Those men are crazy good! Give them a toot of the horn when you pass them by!” wrote Larson to the Coconuttele.

This professional land management project to restore wildlife habitat is funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as part of Secretary Jon Steverson’s initiative to restore state lands and islands to “maintenance condition.”

Contractors are on the move to get rid of the non-native, invasive plants and animals that threaten Florida's beautiful native wildlife. According to DEP, plant and animal species not found in Florida prior to the arrival of the first European settlers are considered non-native or exotic, and these species can become invasive when they defeat native species in the life-long competition for food, sunlight and space.

“The goal of this project is to improve habitat that could be used by panthers and other wildlife but has largely been inaccessible due to encroachment by invasive exotic species such as Brazilian pepper, Ear Leaf Acacia and Downy Rose Myrtle,” said Rookery Bay Reserve Director Keith Laakkonen in a recent press release.

According to Laakkonen, the seeds of some species can remain dormant for months or years after the parent plant is removed, and complete eradication of nonnative, invasive plants is not possible, in most cases. The project aims to reduce the amount of coverage taken up by nonnative, invasive plants on state lands from 90 percent (in some locations) to 10 percent. This grant includes funds to allow for periodic retreatment of these areas in order to achieve permanent maintenance condition.

The project is said to include two phases of herbicide treatment and manual removal by contractors in areas of pine flatwoods, mangrove forests and marsh habitats on both sides of Henderson Creek west of Collier Boulevard. The first phase of the project will cost $231,000. Phase two is scheduled to be implemented at intervals of three to six months and one to two years.

“I hope the crew working with Rookery Bay to remove non-native trees along Capri Boulevard doesn’t destroy its natural beauty. Some of us may remember what happened after Rookery Bay crews removed non-native trees from Coconut Island resulting in the loss of the island, wrote Capri resident Diane DeCaro to the Coconuttele.

DeCaro is referring to a time in which the invasive Australian Pines were choking out the mangroves on the small island just west of the Marco River called Coconut Island. This island where so many folks gathered by boat to have fun in the sun and surf began to diminish rapidly as the native coconut and mangrove trees died out. A few replacement coconut palms were put in, but none were able to survive. The island drifted west and what was left of it joined what is known to most locals as Sand Dollar Island.

Larson is grateful to the State for its help in what he has referred to as a “daunting endeavor,” but he has high hopes that with this new focused effort on the part of Rookery Bay and others, and with the continued help from the Isles of Capri volunteers, the unwanted invasive peppers will be forced out by “one Pepper Bustin Party at a time.”

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