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Date of Issue: March 29, 2007

Kingfish area tree removal begins

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A sign announces the intent of a Manatee County tree removal project near the Kingfish Boat Ramp - to protect mangroves while taking out Brazilian pepper trees. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff
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Brazilian pepper trees are considered invasive, non-native plants that threaten coastal habitats.

Manatee County workers this week began removing Brazilian pepper trees along a section of Manatee Avenue in Holmes Beach near the Kingfish Boat Ramp.

The work was delayed for months due to a hitch in securing the equipment necessary to take out the trees, said Keith Bettcher, administrator for the Manatee County Conservation Lands Management Department.

 A sign erected last week near the boat ramp announced the project, "This maintenance work is being conducted by the Manatee County Conservation Lands Management Department in cooperation with the Palma Sola Causeway Scenic Highway Beautification Committee. We are protecting native mangrove trees by removing Brazilian pepper and other non-native plants harmful to Florida's coastal environment."

"Brazilian peppers have no natural predators in Florida so they grow at a rapid rate and there's nothing to keep them in balance except humans," Bettcher said. "They shade everything else out."

Environmental specialists with the state, the county and the University of Florida classify the Brazilian pepper as one of the most aggressive of the invasive, non-indigenous plants in Florida. The tree, which was probably introduced in Florida in the mid-1800s from South America, infests aquatic and terrestrial habitats. The fruit can be toxic, having a narcotic-like effect on wildlife. The sap can cause skin rashes.

The tree removal, funded with county boater registration fees and budgeted at $40,000, is part of a broader plan for improvements in the boat ramp area, which the county has operated for years. A survey last fall found that the boat ramp also lies within the county's unincorporated limits, though Holmes Beach officials would like to annex the property at the gateway to the city.

County and city officials, as well as nearby property owners, have navigated changes at Kingfish that will involve the construction of rest rooms at the northeastern edge of the area, beautification along the roadway and creating an entrance and exit for parking.

But plans for boat ramp improvements will not be finalized until the county "gets the nuisance vegetation out of there," said Bill O'Shea, environmental manager of coastal programs for Manatee County.

The tree removal - cutting of pepper trees to stumps followed by herbicide treatments - began Monday, March 26, as The Islander went to press.

"We use a wetland-approved herbicide and apply it with hand sprayers," Bettcher said. "And we're doing strictly the stump. It goes on the living layer of the tree, with an oil base so it sticks to the woody surface."

Bettcher said his crew would remove some carrotwoods in addition to the pepper trees.

The south side work could take about three days.

"There is very little soil disturbance with the machines," Bettcher said. "And we're not killing mangroves. We're in the business of conservation. ... We're looking at what's in the best interest of the land. We've got a very qualified staff doing the work - with 60 years experience combined."

After clearing designated trees from the south side of Manatee Avenue, also known as State Road 64, the workers will begin removing some trees on the north side, at the boat ramp.

That work will start on the eastern edge of the ramp and move west toward Westbay Cove condominiums. The work will involve the removal of Brazilian pepper trees and possibly some Australian pines, said Holmes Beach City Commissioner David Zaccagnino.

The commissioner said county officials pledged to proceed with care. "When they move to the north side, they'll hand-cut trees when they get close to Westbay Cove," Zaccagnino said.

Last week, visitors to Kingfish and walkers along Manatee Avenue said they hoped the effort benefits people and the environment.

"With some buffers and directions added to the parking area eventually, that's going to improve the look and the traffic situation out here," said boater Karl Jackson.

"I think when they get in there and clear out the invasives we are going to see just how beautiful the area is," said Jayne Mailer, a Holmes Beach resident who walks along the boat ramp almost daily.

Bettcher agreed. "You'll be able to see through to the mangroves, to actually see the wading birds," he said. "Right now, there's an impenetrable wall of Brazilian peppers."