If you head out to Fort De Soto this weekend you might notice something different about the park's North Beach. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is removing the Australian pine trees, an exotic species that interferes with sea turtle nesting.
Some people love Australian pines, but this non-native species has no business on a wild Florida beach. This tropical evergreen, which can grow to 150 feet and is sometimes called an ironwood or horsetail tree, is native to the South Pacific islands and Southeast Asia.
Australian pines grow very aggressively and should never be planted. Possession of Australian pine with the intent to sell or plant is illegal in Florida without a special permit. Several species of Australian trees were introduced to Florida during the 1890s. Although commonly called pines, these plants are angiosperms, not conifers.
People thought it was a good idea to plant the trees to form windbreaks around canals, agricultural fields, roads and houses. The trees proved particularly resilient to salt spray so they thrived near the sea and invaded thousands of acres of southeastern and southwestern Florida.
According to the FWC, Australian pines outcompete native vegetation by producing a dense leaf litter. They also have shallow root systems, which is why they tend to uproot and topple during high winds and pose a hazard to coastal storm evacuation routes.
Australian pines also displace native beach plant communities that provide critical habitat for many threatened and endangered plant and animal species. They also encourage beach erosion by displacing deep-rooted, native vegetation.
These exotic trees provide little or no native wildlife habitat and actually interfere with sea turtle nesting. The North Beach will be temporarily closed to the public on weekdays until all of the invasive exotic vegetation has been removed. The beach will remain open during weekends and holidays. Work is expected to be completed by July 10.
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