Saturday, June 16, 2007
Behold the patio palms we plant at loss of scrub’s natural wonder
Only tropical rain forest surpasses Florida’s upland scrub for its variety of plants and animals. Like the rain forest, scrub is vanishing in the maw of human avarice. Unlike the rain forest, which still covers about 7 percent of the planet’s land mass, sand pine scrub unique to Florida has all but vanished — 85 percent of it plowed for agriculture or paved for cities. The biggest remaining expanse lies west of Volusia and Flagler counties in the Ocala National Forest. You can see the low thickets of oak and palmetto beneath spindly sand pines along State Road 40 beyond Astor.
Closer to home, patches of scrub stick out like cowlicks in the coiffed expanse of subdivisions and strip malls along the southerly reaches of the DeLand Ridge. The largest patch in public hands includes a nature preserve in the heart of Deltona where in our hubris we attempt to save displaced gopher tortoises, scrub jays and other indigenous species to atone for destroying their habitat elsewhere. (Deltona, Volusia’s most populated city, was built on 20,000 acres of scrub.)
As News-Journal environmental writer Dinah Pulver recently reported, only 15 tracts of privately owned scrub larger than 50 acres remain in Volusia County, only four larger than 100 acres. They are coveted for development. People want houses above the floodplain; that generally has meant building in scrub.
While that puts numerous species, from tortoises and jays to skinks and snakes, in jeopardy, it also threatens a more far-reaching and economically vital natural resource — the aquifer. For it is in the sands of the upland scrub that rainfall finds easiest passage to the limestone chasms below, replenishing one of the purest drinking water supplies on earth.
We do not yet know the price we’re paying to live where scrub grew for the past million years. The loss of the pine snake may seem insignificant until backyards are infested with pocket gophers, the snake’s primary prey. Without the tortoises’ burrows, scores of species that depend on them for shelter will be lost. Without these creatures’ function to pollinate or distribute seed or keep vermin in natural balance, will we be satisfied to live only with each other, our pets and patio palms? It is an artificial place we create in a land of natural wonder. Will we mind paying more for water, less potable, from river or sea?
Prized for development, scrub is increasingly priced beyond reach of the public purse. Yet we should, through state and county land preservation funds, acquire and protect what little remains before it is gone forever. And scrub should be given higher priority for acquisition in Volusia County than swampland that, scams or not, is unbuildable. Scrub land values would not increase so readily if governing agencies prohibited development on such tracts to preserve wildlife habitat and protect water supplies in the public interest.
Meanwhile, local and state agencies should diligently and continuously inventory remaining scrub and make sure the public is well informed about its ecological and aesthetic value. People should also be apprised of its degradation. Fire regenerates scrub, clearing the understory for new seedlings to sprout, opening green shoots that sustain animals that live there. The wildfires that once swept vast landscapes in natural cycles are mostly controlled now to protect humans and their edifices. It is imperative that remaining patches of scrub be burned in controlled cycles and the people who live nearby accept the smoky inconvenience as necessity for their preservation.
Perhaps we can live in a Florida without scrub, in a world without scrub or rainforest. But what kind of world will we need to create to make up for their loss? We don’t really know. It’s a shame that we’re so close to finding out.