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?

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?

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