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Key West Island News Pines

Australian pines | Cut ’em down except at Fort Zach

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

12/17/2022

I hate Australian pines and I’d happily stand in the way of a chain saw whirring noisily toward the Australian pines canopy at Fort Zach.

It’s possible for the brain to hold opposite points of view. It’s what makes humans frustratingly complex and wickedly hard to pin down. I can love and hate Australian pines at the same time. Sorta like adults are with kids: We can love our own when they’re wreaking havoc with a dinner party — and hate everyone else’s toddlers and teens for doing the same thing.

So before I go any further, (and so I don’t get trolled on social media) here’s my point: Protecting the Australian pines at Fort Zach is good. Getting rid of Australian pines elsewhere is good.

Australian pines “elsewhere”

Let’s start with “elsewhere.”

Australian pines are nasty, invasive weeds. There’s nothing remotely redeeming about the Australian pine in the wild. The Australian pine was introduced to Florida from (obviously) Australia in the 1890s, when folks in the know then thought they’d make really good windbreaks for canals, fields, roads and houses.

What those folks didn’t know (sadly) was that these salt-tolerant evergreen trees are the aggressive, Star Trek Borg bullies of the native environment. They were born to grow fast, spread fast, suck up the nutrients, crowd out the locals and generally take over. “Resistance is futile.”

Their roots are relatively shallow and they don’t trap sand so they can increase beach erosion. Few birds find them enticing for food or nests and they take over prime turtle and American crocodile nesting habitat. They’re brittle and prone to breaking off. They are no match for hurricanes (well, except for Fred out there on the ol’ Seven Mile.) They are hard as an iron skillet and were milled as timber for furniture and ship building.

(Aside: We’ve got an Australian pine stump on our front porch, a survivor of a tree lost to Hurricane Irma. It pretty much weighs a bazillion pounds. Feel free to place bets on whether you can move it. I can’t.)

The Australian pine is so invasive in South Florida that the Arch Creek East Environmental Preserve in North Miami invited folks to cut down trees for Christmas this year and then bring the tree back after the holidays for mulching.

It’s illegal in Florida to buy, sell, plant or otherwise possess Australian pines. The state folks are doing what they can to get rid of them, but, as one drive along the Overseas Highway will demonstrate, it’s likely a losing battle. The wetlands, canals, shorelines and mangroves are overrun with out-of-control Australian pines. The day will come when mangroves, buttonwoods, sea grapes and other natives are wiped out.

Australian pines Fort Zach
Waiting in the food line for lunch on the beach under the Australian pines

Protect the Fort Zach Australian pines

But. Here’s where I turn around and tell you I love the Australian pines canopy at Fort Zach.

In 1910, Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas got it’s first Australian pine plantings. By 1919, the U.S. military was using Australian pines at Fort Zachary Taylor to stabilize the fill piling up from its dredging of the harbor channel and to provide shade. The trees were planted everywhere there was fill, including inside the fort’s parade grounds. Between 1968 and 1976, the parade grounds trees’ roots were damaging the fort’s foundations and removals began inside the fort.

In 2007, the state started its assault on the remaining Australian pines, planning to cut 10 percent annually until they were gone — to be replaced by native vegetation and concrete shelters for metal picnic tables.

And, Key West went absolutely nuts. Between 2008-2011, Save Our Pines, a community grassroots, 501c3 organization that continues to protect and manage the Australian pines at Fort Zach, consolidated that energy into a state-local partnership that has digitally mapped every tree at Zach and continues to carefully track and oversee their management and maintenance. (Thanks to saveourpines.com for the most excellent history lessons.)

Nothing happens to those trees without Save our Pines agreeing. That means visitors have shade and old-fashioned picnic tables. And that, my friends, is a worthy thing.

There are long-term concerns. Nothing grows very successfully under that canopy, not even baby pines. Replanting in place likely isn’t feasible even if the state were to agree. There are some voluntaries in a few places where old trees have come down, ensuring enough sunlight and nutrition. But, at some point, probably not in our lifetimes, the existing Australian pines will die or be swept away.

What to do? Consider a donation to Save our Pines. I did. Oh, and next time you’re near an Australian pine seedling in the wild? Rip that sucker out.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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