Little Pine Island Native Plants Return

By Kevin Lollar

A gentle breeze slipped across Little Pine Island on Saturday as vultures rode morning thermals in a patchy sky.

Ten years ago, a visitor standing in the same spot would have neither felt the breeze nor seen the vultures: All would have been blocked by an impenetrable stand of melaleuca trees, one of Florida’s nastiest non-native plants.

But in 1997, Mariner Properties Development Inc. and consulting ecologist Kevin Erwin started restoring the island to its original wetlands function.

So far, Mariner has removed more than 5 million melaleucas and 100 million pounds of exotic vegetation, including Brazilian pepper and Australian pines.

With the exotics gone, native plants have returned. “I’ve seen it before and after, and this is incredible,” said ecologist Mike Myers, 51, of Fort Myers, who was on Little Pine Island for a 10-year restoration anniversary. “What you see today is absolutely beautiful. Ten years ago, this was a solid wall of melaleuca. Today it’s a beautiful wilderness.”

Little Pine Island went bad in the 1950s, when it was in private hands, and the owners dug ditches to drain wetlands and control mosquitoes.

With ground and surface water gone, native wetland vegetation disappeared, and exotic vegetation took over.

In addition to removing exotics, Mariner is filling 7 miles of ditches.

“If you don’t do that, it’s impossible to restore wetlands function,” said Dick Anderson, the project’s director of sales and customer service. “When the mosquito ditches were installed, everything started going downhill. Take water away and add melaleuca, and forget about it.”

Before restoration started, not many animals lived there — native wildlife doesn’t like non-native vegetation.

Now the island has 103 bird species (including 51 wetland-dependent species), 11 mammal species, 17 reptile species, seven amphibian species, 13 fish species and at least 95 aquatic macro-invertebrate species.

Little Pine Island is more than a restoration project: It’s also a wetlands mitigation bank.

The idea behind wetlands mitigation is that state and federal governments don’t want to lose more wetlands.

Under Florida law, if a developer or government wants to destroy wetlands, there are four choices: restore wetlands on site, restore or create wetlands at another site, donate wetlands to the state or buy mitigation credits at a mitigation bank — degraded wetlands that are restored by someone else.

The state owns Little Pine Island, but Mariner is financing the restoration and selling mitigation credits.

Mariner is restoring 1,600 acres of the 4,700-acre island — the rest is mangroves. Under the terms of the permit, Mariner must also make sure exotic vegetation doesn’t return to the island.

“We’ve removed all of these exotics without touching the ground with machines,” Anderson said. “That sounds surreal, but we built temporary roads, and tracked vehicles run on rubber mats. All the trees were cut by hand with chain saws, and the tracked vehicles removed them. This hasn’t been done on this scale anywhere in the world.”