MAXWELL:  Before all the cypress are turned to mulch

2/28/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Last year alone, I drove at least 30,000 miles statewide, from the once-bustling village of Flamingo in the Everglades to the tiny burg of Walnut Hill in the western Panhandle. The environmental devastation I witnessed _ deforestation, unnecessary forest fires, dredging, backfilling, excavating, paving and the spreading of herbicides _ makes me want to chase the perpetrators into the sea or, at the very least, force them into Alabama and Georgia.

As the Florida Legislature prepares to go into annual session, natives like me want our new governor, Jeb Bush, a wealthy developer from Texas, to know that our peninsula is a special place and that the wholesale raping of our pristine treasures _ some of the most magnificent flora and fauna anywhere in the world _ has to end.

In case no one except natives have noticed, our paradise has become a victim of its own allure as tens of thousands of people a year make Florida their permanent home and as millions of others visit our beaches, amusement parks and other entertainment venues.

“The tale of Florida’s development is often sordid, marked by the greed of people intent on taking whatever the land offered and leaving nothing in return,” writes Mark Derr in his book, Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida.

Few contemporary trends illustrate Derr’s observation more than the coast-to-coast destruction of our cypress trees. Although these trees symbolize Florida almost as much as alligators and oranges, their disappearance, unlike that of mangrove trees, has gone virtually unreported. As a result, no important citizen protest has emerged to send a warning to elected officials.

Exactly how important are cypress trees to the long-term health of Florida, the state with the most beautiful name? Second only to pines in sheer numbers, cypress occupy 1.6-million wetland acres and are essential for water purification, flood control and as habitat for wildlife.

Some cypress stands, especially those in the swamps, ponds and backwaters here in the southern region, are being wiped out to make room for housing developments and new municipalities, such as Abacoa, a Truman Show-type city being constructed near the Loxahatchee River in Palm Beach County. When completed, Abacoa will consume 2,055 acres.

Even though cypress stands here are being destroyed to make way for buildings, most trees statewide are being cut for mulch. That is right: Our cypress trees are being reduced to mulch for flower beds. For many homeowners, in fact, cypress mulch is a horticultural must. According to a report by the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation, most of the old-growth _ some the mammoth trees hundreds of years old _ was harvested before the 1950s and was used to manufacture furniture, shingles, paneling, beehives and water tanks.

Today, however, 85 percent of the trees are bagged as mulch. In assessing the extent of the devastation, a federal study shows that cypress harvesting has increased from about 19-million cubic feet in 1980 to 42-million cubic feet in 1995, an amount that would fill a 90-story bin the size of UF’s Florida Field.

As if the uncontrolled harvesting is not bad enough, we are not regenerating trees fast enough to make up for the losses. “It warrants an alert,” said Judy Hancock with the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club. “There’s just major devastation going on. You can see it just rolling down the road.”

What are local and state officials doing to halt the destruction? Hardly anything. State forestry bigwigs and timber moguls are commissioning studies to determine the impact of increased harvesting on wetland stands and to discover ways to regenerate trees. Officials, wary of angering homeowners, hope that the new studies will bring voluntary rules to harvesting.

The hard truth is that voluntary guidelines will not work in an industry that has a trendy, lucrative product such as cypress mulch. Mandatory guidelines are needed. And we need to use the best science available to determine _ once and all _ how fast cypress stands regenerate and under what conditions. What level of stress, for example, does heavy harvesting place on the general ecology?

We do not have reliable answers because officials let the mulch industry virtually regulate itself. Meanwhile, the Sunshine State is losing trees that beautify our roadsides, nurture our wildlife and help keep our ground water potable.

We are fools to let this continue. “There are as many reasons for moving to Florida as there are people,” Derr writes, “and the problem becomes less one of controlling the influx than of assuring that the state’s prime resources are cared for and respected. . . . That can come about only if those officials and voters shaping the state’s destiny approach their responsibilities with a feel for the land and water that transcends desire for quick profit. Once used up and despoiled, it is paradise no more.”