Ah, Wilderness!

Just when zealous county and state bureaucrats thought they had all their ducks in a row last Tuesday, up popped Kirk Swing, bandy-legged homunculus, noisy organizer, ecological heretic.

Swing installs large neon signs for a living but yearns for wilderness. Lately he's taken to toting a faded snapshot in his breast pocket. The photo, which he is wont to wave in people's faces, shows Swing at age six standing on a dock. It's the day 30 years ago when his father first took him to Sandspur Island.

"The island hasn't changed a bit since then," Swing barks, powering his 30-foot speed boat across northern Biscayne Bay. "Neither have I. Except I have a six-year-old son now, and I take him over there."

The boat skims past the island's sandy southern tip, where a solitary pair of brown-skinned lovers lie necking in the sun beside a water bike. Further up the beach stand three county biologists and a uniformed park ranger. Swing and the five other native Miamians accompanying him frown at the officials. The showdown has begun.

"I want to know what harm those Australian pines are doing," shouts Jim Breul, a retired merchant, almost as soon as his feet touch shore. "Just what harm are they doing?"

"They're causing the entire island to be underutilized," snorts Brian Flynn, coordinator for Dade County's Beach Erosion Control Program. "Try to walk to the center of this island and do something."

"Well, who says we want masses of people to be walking around over here?" shrieks Lynn Hyde, a self-described "water person," her arms akimbo.

"If you were to clean up this island with what you have now and not spend four or five hundred thousand dollars doing it, then people could come here and have a nice pine-needle bed to walk on," adds Randy Reed, a building contractor.

"The problem is, it won't stay that way," counters Scott Robinson, manager of nearby Oleta River State Recreation Area. Robinson, visibly taken aback by the throng surrounding him, feels subconsciously for the gun on his hip.

"But you're going to have to maintain what you're planning to do here, too, or you're going to have these Australian pines right back on top of you," hollers Irwin Egert, wringing his hands.

"That's getting back to what we want to do: minimize the Australian pines," hisses Gary Milano, a Dade County marine biologist.

"I wish you guys, instead of just going ahead and doing things, would come to the people and say, `We got this problem and we want to handle it. What's the best way to handle it?'" says Reed.

"You're talking about numbers and high-use areas and making this a public-park type situation," announces David Gray, owner of a fence company. "What I'm concerned about is that you're going to ruin the reason I bring scouts out here camping. It's the woods. It's wilderness. It's as far as they've ever been from the city."

In the Depression years of the early 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began digging the Intracoastal Waterway. The muck scooped up from the bay bottom between North Miami and Bal Harbour became Sandspur Island. For decades the fifteen-acre sandbar has been a favorite picnic and camping spot for sailors and powerboaters. Swing, for instance, throws a yearly bash complete with live band.

By the 1960s Sandspur, also known as Beer Can Island, was already covered with a thick forest of Australian pines, giving the illusion of wilderness in the middle of the increasingly urban areas around it. Today the trees are about 40 feet tall. As of last Tuesday, Dade County and the Florida Inland Navigation District were prepared to go forward with a $480,000 plan to eradicate every Australian pine on the island, replacing them with indigenous species such as mahogany, gumbo limbo, and Jamaican dogwood.

Gary Milano, a marine biologist for Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management, designed the plan and found funding for it. Like other public and private environmentalists around the state, he believes the Australian pine is the enemy of South Floridians. The aggressive outsider, with its dense shade and thick pine-needle carpet, chokes out native species of shrubs and trees that would otherwise provide food for mice and birds. The shallow roots of Australian pines don't provide much erosion protection and present an insurance risk for park managers responsible for the island. (While Swing was pooh-poohing this risk last Tuesday, one of the pines fell over and nearly hit him.)

Milano also says replacing the trees would make the island more accessible to more people. As it is, the forest is too thick to allow easy trans-island hiking.

Swing and his group say returning Sandspur to some idealized original horticultural state is preposterous; the island is manmade and apparently always had Australian pines as its dominant growth. Besides that, Swing predicts the replanting will fail because the pines will reassert themselves. In the meantime -- several years or even decades -- boaters will have to contend with a nearly bald island. Swing and his fellow opponents point to two other nearby spoil islands immediately to the south, where government-sponsored biological revisionism has resulted in barren sandbars pocked with a few forlorn saplings.

And they point out that Australian pines, now the Haitian boat people of the plant world, were originally welcomed by government officials. According to the authors of Ecosystems of Florida, three species of Australian pine were introduced into Florida from their native western Pacific region around the turn of the century, most probably by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's experiment station in Homestead. From this source they were widely planted as windbreaks around houses and along roads.

While the scientific consensus against Australian pines has solidified in the past decade, a popular countercurrent may be strengthening. Last year a small and surprising war broke out on Sanibel Island, on Florida's west coast, when business owners wanted to cut down a stand of Australian pines along the city's main street. "The people threw a fit," relates Dawn Grodsky, editor of the Island Reporter.

Late Tuesday, after failing for three hours to convince Swing and his grass-roots followers that their plan was for the good of all citizens, Milano and the other government representatives reached a compromise with their opponents. Australian pines will be removed from the east side of the island, but a 40-foot swath will be left along the beach on the west side. The agreement was sealed with a handshake, whereupon Swing climbed in his boat with his suntanned son, and went home tired and happy.


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