No Plan Is an Island

One of the islands in Biscayne Bay just north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway appears to have come down with a bad case of mange. Once bushy and verdant, it's now relatively barren. The island's most prominent feature is a yellow backhoe.

"We're basically giving the island a face-lift," explains Gary Milano, a biologist for the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). Three weeks ago a contractor began tearing up the isle, which these days is commonly called Morningside Island but for years was referred to as Island No. 2, from the numerical system used by Christo, the artist who wreathed the archipelago in pink polypropylene. During the eleven-week construction project, the contractor will eradicate exotic vegetation, replace it with native flora, and stabilize the shoreline with bulwarks of limestone boulders. The county has done the same to eight other islands in Biscayne Bay and plans to overhaul at least four more, Milano says.

The project is part of a larger effort to restore the environmental well-being of the bay. In the early Eighties, scientists determined that one of the biggest threats to the water body was turbidity, a clouding of the water caused by sediment. This problem is a result of shoreline erosion and prevents light from penetrating the water. No light means no sea grass. No sea grass means the loss of a natural water filter, not to mention the loss of an essential habitat and food source for sea life.

The scientists concluded that the sediment, in large part, was coming from the uninhabited bay islands, most of which were created from limestone and soil dredged from the bay's bottom during the digging of the Intracoastal Waterway in the early 1900s. Waves caused by storms and passing boats were eroding the islands' banks and washing silt into the water. DERM engineers have combated the erosion by lining the islands' edges with limestone boulders, which absorb the force of the waves and also help prevent soil from washing into the bay.

In addition to these fortification efforts, DERM has redesigned the islands to improve natural habitats for wildlife and to make them more accessible to boaters. The finished islands now have picnic areas, chickee huts, barbecue pits, volleyball courts, and nature trails. (Funding for the restoration and enhancement project is split evenly between county and state sources.)

Even though contractors have been at work for three weeks, plans for Morningside Island are not entirely set. Milano says the contractor will space six limestone-boulder barriers around the island and will build a low dune along the eastern side. There will also be a picnic area with a simple shelter, and a layer of sand blanketing the island. Finally, there will be some trees and shrubs. How many, though, and of what variety are the subject of some debate.

The working plan calls for about 50 different native species of flora, ranging from sea oats to saw palmetto to sea grapes to gumbo-limbo -- more than 2500 plants in all. The selection, ecologically speaking, is a vast improvement because it includes plants that are saltwater tolerant and provide food, such as berries, for birds, Milano says. The list includes several endangered plant species that the biologist hopes will take root and become a source of seedlings for other planting projects around Dade. Milano wants to create a "coastal-strand community" that would not be as densely vegetated as the island was pre-backhoe, but would be far from denuded.

If one vocal group of citizens has its way, though, the island would look like it sprang right out of a Tahitian travel brochure. The Morningside Civic Association doesn't think much of Milano's complicated vision. They want to keep it simple: coconut palms, sand, and picnic tables. That's all. "We would very much like to see a tropical, South Pacific sort of setting," explains Elvis Cruz, a long-time Morningside resident who is serving as the association's liaison to DERM. "I would prefer that it look like Crandon Park beach."

Cruz argues that his unembroidered design is both more aesthetically pleasing and less of a hindrance to boaters trying to beach their vessels for a weekend barbecue. He disdains the unmanicured landscaping on DERM's other renourished spoil islands, describing the densely foliaged Sandspur Island, located just west of Haulover Cut, as "an overgrown lot."

Nor does he think much of DERM's stringent prohibition of exotic flora. "The DERM people have a fashionable, politically correct, environmentally enthusiastic attitude toward the design," he complains. "Any plant that is not native they consider bad. It's what I call 'plant genocide.' It's environmental fanaticism." Environmental regulators, however, argue that exotics like melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, and Australian pine are a scourge because they spread quickly, squeeze out indigenous species, and furnish only limited habitats for wildlife. The problem is so chronic in the region that Dade County, the State of Florida, and the federal government have intensive eradication programs for exotic flora. (Ironically, coconut palms -- a botanical icon of South Florida -- are non-native species but are not considered a nuisance; DERM's plans call for 40 of them on Morningside Island.)

Milano admits the residents' concerns about obstacles to boat access have already forced DERM to back away from its original proposal for the island, which included a wall of mangroves along the eastern bank. Still, he remains diplomatic. "I like to compromise, to make both parties happy," he says cheerfully. "I might reduce the number of coastal-strand plants for them." But, the biologist points out, Morningside residents aren't the only people who enjoy the island, which is owned by the City of Miami. It is, after all, one of the first natural landmarks visitors see as they approach Miami Beach along I-195 and the causeway. "We really want to dress this one up," Milano beams.


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