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Funds cut as threat from tree increases

Officials worry that just as huge quantities of melaleuca seeds may have been blown across the Everglades by Hurricane Andrew, the budget to wipe out the trees that crowd out native plants is being cut.

South Florida Water Management District officials are spending $1-million to wipe out melaleuca trees this year. That amount would be cut in half next year under the proposed budget.

Executive Director Tilford Creel said his agency needs help with the two-year anti-melaleuca campaign. But state and federal officials, who are spending considerably less than water managers, insist that they can't afford to play a bigger role in the battle.

Concerns about melaleuca were heightened after Andrew's 140 mph winds ripped through south Dade County on Aug. 24. Experts suspect that the storm scattered vast amounts of seeds from melaleuca forests lining the eastern edge of the Everglades.

An abnormally rainy dry season has allowed officials to keep much of the Everglades inundated for the past several months, raising hopes that many of the melaleuca seeds drowned before they could take root.

It is too soon to tell whether enough seeds have survived to pose a threat to tree islands damaged by Andrew, said Tom Armenato, the acting research director at Everglades National Park.

The imported Australian tree covers about 500,000 acres in the Everglades and is spreading by up to 50 acres a day.

The trees consume three to six times as much water as sawgrass and kill off native plants.