It Isn't Easy Being Green

Homestead Air Force Base is a crucial natural habitat for a rare plant. But don't worry, they'll develop around it.

Linum arenicola, commonly called sand flax, is a frail sprig that stands about eight inches tall and sports a tiny bright-yellow five-petaled flower. Despite its unassuming appearance and the fact that it has no known practical uses (unlike its cousin Linum usitatissimum, from which linen, linseed oil, and linoleum are derived), this diminutive weed does have one particularly compelling characteristic. There isn't much of it left.

Native to South Florida's pine rockland habitats, sand flax once flourished here, but human development has reduced its presence to a mere seven known populations, according to Christopher Kernan, a research scientist at Fairchild Tropical Garden Research Center who has tracked down and documented the populations with the help of notebooks left by South Florida's early botanists and explorers. One site, on Big Pine Key, is home to several thousand plants. The other locales, scattered from Coral Gables to the Redlands, are far smaller: Two patches, one numbering about 600 plants, the other about 20, are in Homestead; another 250 plants survive in a vacant lot on Old Cutler Road; 12 grow on the grounds of Burger King's headquarters, also on Old Cutler; 75 are in a South Dade cemetery; and 27 straddle SW 264th Street in the Redlands.

Though none of the plant clusters is marked in any way -- botanists fear that calling attention to them might invite poaching or destruction -- the two Homestead sites are quite prominent. They're on the grounds of Homestead Air Force Base. And they might not be long for this world. Once the U.S. Air Force turns over the base to Dade County, which will likely happen sometime this year, the private developers planning to revamp the facility into an airport and industrial office park will be able to plow those few hundred spindly little stalks into oblivion.

It didn't have to be this way. This past year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reviewed the sand flax for federal designation as an endangered species, but the plant failed to make the grade, and thus does not warrant protection from "malicious disturbance" or from removal from federal property. (The Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973, had one of its first landmark tests when federal protection of the snail darter held up construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee.)

According to Fish & Wildlife biologist Mike Jennings, the thinking was that certain other species faced a more imminent threat of extinction and the sand flax could wait until the next review cycle. But the next cycle doesn't begin until next year, and that might be too late: An endangered plant on nonfederal land isn't as thoroughly defended as one that grows on a federal tract. Specifically, a property owner can't remove a federally protected plant for harvesting or commerce but he can destroy it by, say, plunking an aviation-cargo warehouse on top of it. (The species is listed as endangered by the State of Florida, but that designation offers no protection against destruction.)

Jennings says that the Vero Beach office of the Fish & Wildlife Service, which handles the department's issues for South Florida, learned only late last month that the base transfer was pending. "We thought we had a while, but this one snuck up on us," he confesses. "We were amazed that the air force base was negotiating for disposal. Everybody had a good idea what was going to be done with the property except us. It was probably our fault not to address the threat to the species sooner. It probably should've been elevated [to 'endangered' status]."

The question now is not what sort of impact the plant will have on the air-base project but what sort of impact the air-base development will have on the plant. Fish & Wildlife could bestow an emergency "endangered" designation, which would ensure that protective clauses are attached to the base transfer. But, says Dawn Jennings, another biologist in the Fish & Wildlife Service's Vero Beach office (who also happens to be married to Mike): "We have no intention at this particular time to even consider an emergency listing."

Instead, the senior biologist says, her agency will try to work with the parties involved in the base transition to design a development plan that would preserve the plant and its surrounding habitat. "I don't think it's really prudent for the Fish & Wildlife Service to come in at the end and use the Endangered Species Act as a hammer," she explains.

Though hundreds of sand flax plants survive beyond the perimeter of the base, Mike Jennings says losing the base populations would be a tragedy. It's not the number of plants that matters, he explains, it's the number of populations: The greater the number of sites with thriving plants, the better chance the species has to survive natural or human-inflicted disasters.

Both populations on the air-base property are located smack-dab in the middle of the parcel where the new airport and airport-related facilities are planned. Airport officials, though, say there's no cause for worry. According to Dade County Aviation Department administrator Rick Busch, the county will build around the patches of endangered plants.

Why fuss about a weed that doesn't appear to have any obvious redeeming benefits?

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