Why he digs indigenous plants

ST. PETERSBURG — You may have noticed a strand of saplings while driving toward Tampa approaching the Howard Frankland Bridge.

What you really saw was a war. Brazilian pepper trees, an invasive species that ruled on a spit of earth since the causeway was built in 1958, are being slashed by the thousands. Native sea grapes are taking back the land.

Behind the $1 million project of the Florida Department of Transportation is William Moriaty, a longtime Tampa Bay activist who, in his guerrilla past, slipped into parks at night with seeds and shovels to plant young trees. Moriaty, 54, is a roadside vegetation coordinator for the state road agency, where he has worked for 16 years. We chatted with him about his project.

Why are you taking out Brazilian pepper trees?

It's what we call an exotic nuisance plant. It just starts pushing out much of everything else that belongs there. It has a negative impact on our operations. … It's not uncommon that when it would grow near our fence line, it would blow our fence line out. We need to keep people (and animals) out of an eight-lane expressway like that for safety reasons.

How many Brazilian peppers are out there?

The first phase of our project is 20 acres. It's a 6-linear-mile area, with 3 miles on each side, the north and south sides of the Howard Frankland Bridge. Not all of it is Brazilian pepper. Some of those are also desirable mangroves. Of the 20 acres, about 15 acres (of peppers) have been removed. … The second phase is another 14 or 15 acres.

How did they get here?

The Brazilian pepper tree was brought here in the late 1800s as a replacement for holly trees. They didn't know it would become such a nuisance.

How do you remove them?

You cut these down and they will come charging back. … We've removed these mechanically, where we are able to chop them down to the stump. Once they cut it down, there's a person behind them with a backpack sprayer. They use a systemic herbicide, triclopyr. … That has to be done in 15 minutes because plants almost immediately begin to heal themselves."

Why use sea grape as a replacement?

Once it's established, it literally needs no care. We're putting in 4,441 sea grape plants. They're 3 to 6 feet in height. We're also planting over 1,000 buttonwood trees in areas that are not inundated by water. ... Also, we're putting 3,000 Florida privet, another coastal native, in drier areas."

How much does this cost?

The contract is for $1 million. We're buying the sea grapes for about $44 apiece and the privets for $47 each. The trees are about $170 apiece. The contractor is Pine Lake Nursery in Tampa.

How did your background as an activist begin?

It started at age 16 when I fell in love with the native trees of my home state of Florida. Witnessing so much of their destruction in the early '70s in the name of development prompted me to take action through making it a personal mission to plant trees wherever and whenever I could, particularly for the sake of future generations.

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Why he digs indigenous plants 02/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 6:53pm]

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