Thursday, July 26, 2012

Just What the Doctor Ordered – The Importance of Prescribed Fire

If you have been provided a prescription recently from your doctor, you might have noticed the following phrase in your information packet:

“Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medicine because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects.”

This adage can be used when thinking of prescribed fires within Florida as well. Though we may view fire as a frightening and destructive force, it has also always been an important part of our ecosystem.

Prior to Florida’s vast development, fire-susceptible areas burned naturally every three to ten years. Even those areas less susceptible to fire had a burn cycle that repeated every ten to one-hundred years. Most often, lightening would ignite the fires which would then sweep across Florida unimpeded. The cycle would repeat itself in spring and summer. Once the state’s lands started developing, wildfires could no longer be allowed to burn freely.

The absence of this natural cycle can greatly upset the balance of our entire ecosystem. Some of the purposes of burning in Florida are:
  • Cycling of  nutrients
  • Promotion of forest regeneration
  • Improvement of grazing habitat
  • Decreasing of accumulated dead fuels
  • Maintaining of fire-dependent species
Without fire in our state, the plants and animals unique to the original habitat- such as gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wire grass and longleaf pines to name only a few- could be lost.
It is for these reasons that prescribed fire came about. Prescribed fire can be defined as the controlled application of fire to vegetative fuels according to a written prescription and under specified environmental conditions. Just as with your prescription medicine, a written fire prescription outlines the exact conditions under which the burn can be executed. Protecting people from physical harm, smoke-filled air, and poor water quality is the basis for the regulations and standards that now govern prescribed burning, and not following the prescription carefully can even result in a secondary misdemeanor charge. One can rest-assure that the potential ‘side-effects’ have been considered carefully, and precautions placed to minimize them as best as possible.

Image Courtesy of Florida Division of Forestry

GTM NERR and Prescribed Fires

Before and after photos of
a GTM NERR prescribed
fire which occured on
December 12th, 2006
GTM NERR also uses this important tool. We have been working to reintroduce the natural fire cycle to the ecosystems at the Guana River location, because our interdunal swale and freshwater marsh habitat is most certainly a fire dependent community. Though the short term appearance of the resulting habitat can seem quite disturbed, the long term effects provide a more vibrant and natural community for our specialized and sometimes threatened plants and wildlife.
In order to prepare for prescribed burns adjacent to A1A and private property, we hired a contractor to mow a strip of vegetation. This significantly reduces radiant heat and flame heights in order to minimize the potential for property damage. When completing prescribed burns, we also partner with the Florida Forest Service and St John’s County Fire Department, our goal being to restore this important natural cycle while maintaining the safety of our neighbors. Our commitment with regard to prescribed fires is to always “follow the doctor’s orders as directed”!

To learn more about prescribed fire, visit

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Join the ‘Shell’ebration!

Its 8:30 on a Saturday morning, a little early for most people to be hitting the oyster bar, but for us GTM NERR volunteer diehards the party is just starting! No, we aren’t hitting a dance floor. No, we aren’t going to pour a tall one and start shucking. Yes! We are getting this party started right by hauling off a hundred pound waste can full of old smelly oyster shells! If this isn’t your idea of a party, well, then let me tell you more about why it’s cause to ‘shell’ebrate.

You see, oysters have a higher calling than ending their run in our stomachs (with their shells of course ending at the bottom of a landfill). To list only a few benefits, oyster reefs:

  • Provide shelters and nurseries for fish and invertebrates
  • Provide feeding ground for birds
  • Provide protection for shoreline and upland habitat.

As is the case in other coastal areas, water pollution, increased occupancy, over-harvesting, water traffic, and several other factors have taken a toll on the reef, and in February of this year, the GTM NERR launched the Community Oyster Shell and Living Reef Restoration Project. The project’s focus is on restoring the natural oyster reef at the southern shoreline of the Tolomato River on the Guana Peninsula in NE St. John’s County.

Community Oyster Shell & Living Reef Restoration Project Site

The project so far has established an oyster shell recycling program with four local restaurants (listed below) and is also partnering with St John’s County Technical High School to provide a hands-on education program. As of June 15th, volunteers and staff had collected over 7,000 pounds of oyster shell, one third of the 22,000 pounds that will be needed to complete re-construction of the site. After being collected and quarantined, the oyster shells are being bagged into 13 pound bags which will then be used to re-construct a living shoreline. Plants will also be brought in to help re-establish the area. Among other things, the project hopes to increase public awareness, provide educational & community service, restore shellfish habitat, and establish an ongoing community oyster shell recycling program for future restoration projects.

I said I would tell you why hauling heavy, stinky, used oyster shell was a party. It is true that this may not be the most glamorous job that can be found, but the real celebration is being able to stand and look back at the end knowing we were a part of something like the Community Oyster Shell and Living Reef Restoration Project – something that will have a marked and tangible impact on the unique habitat that has been gifted to us in NE Florida.

You can join the party too by:

  • Visiting a participating restaurant and tell them THANK YOU! (or better yet, order the oysters)
  • Bringing your own ‘recycled’ shells to the Middle Beach parking lot and dropping them off in the specified area for personal donations
  • Volunteering with the project! Opportunities abound from Oyster Recycling Runs to bagging and building events.

To learn more about the project and volunteer opportunities with the GTM NERR, visit our Volunteer Wiki site at:

We want to send a special thank you to the following restaurants and organizations, without them, we volunteers wouldn’t have much of a party going on! :

  • Aunt Kate’s
  • Cap’s on the Water
  • Hurricane Patty’s
  • Matanzas Inlet Restaurant
  • NOAA
  • Northrop Grumman

Students from the St. John's Technical High School

Thursday, July 12, 2012

If a Prickly Pear Falls in the Dunes Does Anyone Hear It?

Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
The Prickly Pear cactus with its long spines and deceptively soft-looking stickers that can penetrate one’s skin at even the slightest touch - is often considered by many Floridians to be nothing more than a nuisance plant. However, to our native wildlife and to those who have harnessed its possibilities, the Prickly Pear cactus is a vital source of habitat, beauty, and sustenance.

 In Mexico for instance, nearly every part of the cactus is used:
  • Spines are crafted into trinkets
  • Pads are fed to dairy stock to enhance the flavor of the milk
  • Fibers are pressed into paper
  • Sap can be made into chewing gum
  • Fruits and pads are used in cooking
Even woody dead plants are employed in the construction of houses and furniture – and these are only a few of the many uses!

The Prickly Pear cacti are also critical to wildlife. The pads can provide food and drink, and during times of draught are sometimes the only reliable sources. The threatened Florida Gopher Tortoise is one local species that relies on the resource. The pads, fruits and flowers of the Prickly Pear is a staple of their diet, and since they are rarely seen drinking from still water, they obtain most of their hydration from foods such as the Prickly Pear.

Once you take the time to get to know and understand the Prickly Pear, you can grow to love (or at least respect) this grossly underappreciated plant. Mexico, parts of California, Italy, and the Mediterranean have already embraced the many uses it provides.

Cactoblastis cactorum
Unfortunately, time could be running short for us to develop this appreciation as the Prickly Pear cacti are now being threatened in Florida by the Cactus Moth (Cactoblastis cactorum). This invasive moth species was originally used in Australia during the 1800's to control the spread of the Prickly Pear (considered an invasive plant species in that region). Through its later introduction to the West Indies and Caribbean, the moth has made its way to Florida and beyond, and is expected to have a catastrophic effect on the landscape if its range expands past Louisiana.

There are ways you can help preserve this beautiful and critical plant! Here at the GTM NERR, efforts are being made to treat and/or monitor sections of dunes where the Prickly Pear cacti grow. Volunteers complete “Clean Sweeps” where they sanitize cacti by removing eggsticks, larvae, and infested pads. They also measure plant growth and use a “control-site” with untreated plants that offer room for comparison on the progress of their work. Together we hope to preserve our Prickly Pears and to do our part to help slow the westward spread of the hungry Cactus Moth.

GTM NERR staff and volunteers performing a "Clean Sweep"

To learn more about the research and efforts surrounding the Prickly Pear Cactus and Cactus Moth, or to get involved, visit us at