Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blue Team: Mackenzie Grant

I learned to walk on soft St. Augustine grass. I spoke some of my first words in awe of the bald eagle who lived across the street. I paddled my way across Lake Maitland and finally drove for the first time under the shady Florida palms. I’ve grown up around nature, the kind of nature that makes you stop in your tracks and gaze at its beauty. Since the age of three, I’ve lived in Winter Springs, a small suburb of Orlando. The 13.6 square mile town’s main attraction is Lake Jessup, a lake home to over 10,000 alligators. I’ve taken airboat rides on its murky water, fished off a near-by pier and perused down the St. Johns River searching for critters. Among my travels, I never stopped to wonder where the plants that so decoratively covered the surface came from and what their purpose was. To my surprise, the lakes I’d grown up around had slowly been taken over by invasive plants.

Florida’s subtropical climate and wetlands make it a target for invasive plants and animals to breed and thrive. Plants and animals are deemed “invasive” if they are non-native, self-sustaining and present a negative effect on human quality of life. Other components of the growing arrivals of unwanted species are Florida’s many import landings and the multimillion dollar pet industry. Tampa and Port Canaveral, where imports from around the world come, are perfect places for new plants and animals to transfer to Florida land.

“Once something gets here, it’s very hard to eradicate the animal or plant. We need to do a better job of preventing them from getting here in the first place,” said Dr. Steve Johnson, the assistant professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida.

The University of Florida is working hard to stop these invasive plants from spreading and eventually taking over the native plants, including the on-campus lake, Lake Alice. Alice, like so many others, is a breeding ground for invasive plants such as Water Hyacinth, Hydrilla and Water Lettuce.

According to Dr. Bill Haller, the professor and acting director at UF/FAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, the reason so many invasive plants reside in Florida is due to the shallow waters, we’ve all enjoyed as children. Plants need water, nutrients and sunlight to grow. The shallower the water, the more sunlight the plants receive therefore the more likely they are to develop. Another factor contributing to the expansion of invasive plants is that while native plants need 3 percent of light to grow, invasive plants only require 1 percent.

Over time, fellow-nature lovers will begin to disrupt the growth of these invasive plants near the shores of lakes and slowly the invasive plant’s presence will disappear.

“What a lake is used for, will dictate how it’s managed,” said Brett Bultemeier, the Graduate Research Assistant at UF.

Floridians are unaware of this problem and the results of many of our actions. We’ve grown up watching the sun set over our favorite lakes and we’ve explored the canopied woods around our houses but as a state, we’re uniformed on this crucial issue. We can use mechanical methods, or machinery to cut the plants from the lakes’ bottoms, herbicides to kill the plant, or biological control, the use of animals as a tool for killing invasive creatures.

“We’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle, “said Bultemeier.

The waging war with invasive plants is chronic yet important to continue. The places we’ve grown up are crawling with interesting wildlife, but we need to ensure the safety of these native creatures from invasive species, waiting to become a part of our childhood stories.

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