Restoring a barrier island forest may be key to protecting Miami from storm surge

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

After months of using weed killers, sawing, shoveling, and hand-pulling invasive foamleaf ferns from a tropical forest in Virginia Key Beach Park, City of Miami parks naturalist Gloria Alejandra Antia was finally able to begin the process of reconstruction.

Antia dug a hole and planted a small native tree just steps from the shoreline.

“The health of this island, the health of this ecosystem is crucial for our homes, it protects the continent,” Antia said.

Sand dunes and tropical hardwood hammocks like this one along the South Florida coast are home to rare plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Habitats threatened mainly by development and population growth, but also by natural disasters, are also disappearing. A devastating sweep from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 opened up the native forest on Virginia Key to invasive plants that profoundly changed the ecosystem on the barrier island.

That’s not good for people either. Healthy dunes and coastal or maritime forests are natural defenses against storm surges and sea level rise, which absorb water and pound the waves. Virginia Key, a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, acts as a buffer for the Miami mainland and restoration projects like this one can become important parts of plans to protect South Florida from floods caused by climate change.

“When we create natural habitats, we get to work with nature,” said Rachel Silverstein, a scientist and founder of Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit that advocates for clean water and partners with the Miami parks and recreation department on the project. . “If we can make infrastructure green and support nature to provide the benefits that it naturally provides when healthy, it will increase in value and protection over time.”

Silverstein hopes more nature-based solutions, such as coral reef restoration, dune systems, and hardwood hammocks, will find their way into the US Army Corps of Engineers’ revised storm surge plan for Miami. . She was among environmentalists who opposed an initial billion-dollar plan that included a 30-foot-high, mile-long flood wall along the bay, which would also cut some residential neighborhoods in half, as well as flood gates on the Miami River. Little River and Biscayne Canal. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava halted the Army Corps proposal and a new resiliency plan is expected in August.

“We’re having a once-in-a-generation funding situation and we’ve got to get it right,” Silverstein said. “If we just put bombs and walls and storm doors everywhere, we’ll end up in a place we don’t even want to live in.”

Although the naturalist division of the Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation Department is helping to lead the Virginia Key project, it is staffed by just six people, and ongoing work relies heavily on once-a-month teams of volunteers. Earlier this month, volunteers included winners from the Elevate Prize Foundation, who flew to Miami from around the world for a summit that included a day of service.

One volunteer, Nelly Cheboi, said she planned to apply the lessons she learned from Miami hardwood hammocks to her school in Kenya.

“I also see this in Kenya, our rivers are drying up and there is a lot of deforestation,” Cheboi said. “It was a very nice experience learning ways to plant trees. The way I plant my trees I never pull out the roots, I always dig too deep.”

The work is exhausting. Temperatures were in the 90s and the sun was beating down on the volunteers as they dug wide holes in the sandy soil. But once the project is complete, the trees should fill in the open spaces and create a shady canopy.

Antia said mangrove restoration has been a success on Virginia Key Beach and that forestry work is now in a “maintenance phase.” Staff and volunteers will return for around three to five years to remove new exotic seedlings that may compete with native plantings. Native trees, including species like the Biscayne prickly ash, help retain loose soil and slow erosion. Invaders like the Brazilian pepper and latherleaf fern have weaker root systems and are less resistant to wind and salt water.

“The response of the mangroves once we have done the restoration work has been excellent, they are quite resistant and once you remove the exotics they do a good job on their own,” said Antia.

2023 Miami Herald.
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Restoring a barrier island forest may be key to protecting Miami from storm surge (May 25, 2023)
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