Residents ready to bust up more Brazilian peppers on Capri

Ann Hall

Luke Larson, resident of the Isles of Capri, has long dreamed of ridding the isles of the invasive Brazilian Pepper plants that are becoming more visible in the beautiful mangrove hammock in which his community is quietly nestled.

He elicited help from another long term resident, Paul Westberry, and the two approached the Department of Environmental Protection and Collier County Growth Management for help and support.

Permission was granted for a volunteer group to work in concert with the state and local officials to begin their journey on Sept. 20 in connection with the annual Collier Coastal Cleanup Project. This project is part of the Keep Collier Beautiful Program, under the direction of Zim Zimmerman, executive director. Anthony David, Collier County Environmental Specialist and Mark Burtchin, Project Manager of Right of Ways Permitting and Inspection, also helped to pave the way for this energetic volunteer group.

Permission was granted for the voluntary group to begin round two of Brazilian pepper bustin' in concert with the annual Great American Cleanup, Collier Bay Days, coordinated by Keeping Collier Beautiful held on April 11.

Larson began the morning once again with a safety lesson for the volunteers.

"Be careful when you are cutting to watch those beside you who are also cutting."

"Start in the middle, and work your way out."

He also advised the group to wear gloves and other protective clothing. Previously information had been sent out to them warning them of the rash that the peppers can cause to persons with sensitivity to the plant. The rash is similar to that of poison ivy, and for some it can lead to emergency room treatment.

Westberry, Ted Decker, Bob Wallace, Dave Erslend, Patty Meyers, Dave Beatty, and Don Beeckman came armed and ready to work. The residents were not the only ones who turned out to fight the swampy and buggy thickets armed with machetes, chain saws, loppers, and protective clothing to locate and remove the unwanted plants again this year. Joining the crew this year were Dustin Lapolla from Collier County Code Enforcement and Tim Larson.

With so many of these exotic and invasive plants in the forest, it would appear to the layman that there is no way to stop them from taking over. Larson does not see it that way. He has a plan. If the area where the invasive plants are most prominent can be divided into smaller, more manageable areas, and taken one-at-a time, the peppers can be removed and the mangroves can reclaim their positions of authority.

"A dream happens one bite at a time," Larson said.

The eradication of these unwanted invasive pepper plants on the Isles was attempted on a larger scale about eleven years ago under the direction of Judy Haner, former Rookery Bay Coordinator. The problem then was that without proper follow-up of sufficient herbicides being injected into the stumps that were left within a specified window of time after removal, the plants just multiplied almost out of control. Under the current plans, a technician from Rookery Bay comes out the next day, and where the fresh cuts are made injects herbicide to kill the roots.

Volunteers worked from 8:30 a.m.-mid-day. They filled two dumpsters, provided by Waste Management, with the unwanted foliage. In addition to the pepper plants, they removed an assortment of other waste.

Brazilian Peppers grow quickly, spread rapidly, and often displace native plants, which in turn provide habitat with inadequate shelter and insubstantial nutrient value for native wildlife. According to Rookery Bay Research on their website, the state spends millions of dollars annually on invasive species control. The figures are staggering and invasive species require constant maintenance to prevent the squelching of native species. According to the 2011-2012 Aquatic Plant Management report from FWC, "Invasive plants infest 94 percent of Florida's 438 public waters inventoried in 2012 that comprise 1.26 million acres of fresh water."

"Brazilian Pepper can be intimidating," said Larson, "but the progress made is self-evident that the troops are committed to keeping the dream alive. Hopefully, we have shown and encouraged the residents of Capri that progress can be had. Maintaining and expanding the area of Brazilian Pepper is a daunting endeavor, but the effort enhances the health of the mangrove forest and the appreciation of the special environment we islanders enjoy."

Many tackle their hardships one day at a time; Larson and Westberry tackle their unwanted invasive peppers one plant at a time.

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