Brazilian Pepper Removal Project
Using Nature to Restore Nature
Using nothing but hand tools and human muscle, students and faculty in the Environmental Studies Program at Eckerd College have been working on an innovative new approach to ecological management in the campus Palm Hammock Nature Preserve, a five-acre successional palm and oak forest on the west side of campus.
Like many nature preserves around Florida, the Eckerd College Palm Hammock contains a large stand of Brazilian Pepper, an exotic plant species that has a tendency to colonize disturbed landscapes and prevent other species from growing. The current Florida management plan for Brazilian Pepper recommends the use of herbicide to control the species and in many cases land managers use power tools and heavy equipment to raze the unwanted plants from the landscape.
In an effort to determine if Brazilian Pepper could be controlled on the Eckerd College campus without using herbicides or fossil fuels, Environmental Studies Professor Kip Curtis launched a Zero Carbon Brazilian Pepper Removal Project during the fall semester of 2006.
Since that time more than 200 Eckerd College students have volunteered their time to the project, using handsaws and loppers to cut down the trees and bushes and axes and shovels to dig up their roots. The evolving method of control being used by Professor Curtis depends upon the processes of ecological succession to prevent the Brazilian Pepper seeds from finding suitable ground in which to sprout.
In May of 2007, Professor Curtis and a group of Eckerd College volunteers performed the removal of a large swath of plants timed to leave open ground after most of the Brazilian Pepper seeds from that season had either sprouted or died, but before the summer pattern of evening rains had begun in earnest.
During the summer and fall of 2007, annual herbs, grasses and sedges populated the area once thick with Brazilian Pepper and began to establish a natural form of plant biodiversity on the ground. During the winter of 2007-2008, the period of time when Brazilian Peppers seed and repopulate areas, not a single Brazilian Pepper sprout appeared in the clearing. At the same time, the grasses, sedges, and herbs grew thicker and acted as a nursery for more mature native species like cabbage palm and live oak and buttonwood.
"We've been gingerly feeling our way through the process," Professor Curtis reported, "trying to pay careful attention to the rhythms and patterns of the landscape and the seasons in order to learn how to encourage the pattern of plant diversity we are seeking. Much to my delight, it has been working."
The success of the campus project was brought to the attention of land managers with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Aquatic Preserve Program and in May 2008, a large group of Eckerd College students joined Professor Curtis in the initiation of a pilot project on an island in north Boca Ciega Bay. Professor Curtis will be monitoring the site during the 2008-2009 school year to determine how well the methods developed in the Eckerd College Palm Hammock work on these lands.
Now in 2009, two acres of land has been cleared, and annual herbs, grasses and sedges have populated the area once thick with Brazilian Pepper and established a natural form of plant biodiversity on the ground. Since the winter of 2007-2008, not a single sprout of Brazilian Pepper has appeared, though it has had ample time to seed and repopulate the cleared areas. At the same time, the grasses, sedges, and herbs grew thicker and acted as a nursery for more mature native species like cabbage palm and live oak and buttonwood.
"I have been encouraged by the sort of deep commitment to this landscape and this project that Eckerd College students have expressed. Many of these students chose to help out the first time as part a service requirement for their Introduction to Environmental Studies course, but they now join us every time we go out."
Professor Curtis will continue to fine-tune and develop the removal and restoration method in the years ahead, with the goal of developing a set of hand tool tree removal strategies that are as economically efficient as the current state herbicide management strategy.
"I have always believed that an ecological sensibility and economic efficiency can go hand in hand," Professor Curtis has said. "While these sorts of paradigm shifts take a little bit of time to develop, I think we are well on our way. I credit the dedication of Eckerd College students for the enormous success this project has already experienced."
First section of the Brazilian pepper patch before we started work in 2006.
The cleared area in 2008, which can now be seen from space.
Eckerd College students time assault on Brazilian pepper to let native plants back in
St. Petersburg Times
November 15, 2009