Posing that question is guaranteed to provoke an uncharacteristic rise out of Roger Hammer, Dade County's preternaturally soft-spoken senior naturalist. "People tend to like things that are cute," Hammer scoffs. "Of course manatees have a following, and so does the Florida panther. But have you ever heard anybody say, 'Help save the Key Largo wood rat?' It's the same with plants." Selling people on the worth of a species is all the more difficult, Hammer adds, when it looks like "the most insignificant plant on the face of the Earth. A lot of endangered plants are that way. They're not the royal palms and the royal poincianas of the world."
One argument for saving the sand flax is that the species may have as-yet-undiscovered practical value buried in its molecular depths. Hammer points to the celebrated discovery that the Madagascar periwinkle, a common household flower, contains elements that help force childhood leukemia into remission. Similarly, the fruit of the saw palmetto has become a commonly available natural remedy said to promote prostate health, and is being studied for its usefulness in battling prostate cancer. "Before you allow a plant like Linum arenicola to become extinct, you better know everything there is to know about it, make sure it doesn't have something in it to cure AIDS or the common cold," the botanist argues.
Another reason to keep it around: the preservation of our local natural heritage. "If you want to see Linum arenicola, you can't see it anywhere else in the world unless you come here. It's a component that adds to our floral diversity," says the county biologist. Sand flax's natural habitat is itself endangered, he continues. Found along South Florida's coastal limestone ridge, pine rockland once covered 185,000 acres of Dade and Monroe counties. Development has reduced that number to fewer than 4000 acres. The habitats are botanically unique because they boast an unusual mixture of plants from both the temperate and the tropical zone. "There's no other forest like that in the world," says Hammer.
Finally, there's a philosophical argument to be made for the preservation of all species, whether or not you can hug them. There's inherent value in the simple fact that a species exists, argues Keith Bradley, a research associate at the Goulds-based nonprofit Institute for Regional Conservation who discovered the sand flax populations on the air base. "What right do we actually have to say a species is worth something," asks Bradley, "just because we might need it?