Illegal dumping reported at ‘Ding’ Darling trail site
Prior to the grand reopening of the Calusa Shell Mound Trail last Thursday, Toni Westland, supervisory ranger at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge reported that during the renovation of the trail, refuge officials discovered the illegal dumping of household plants and yard waste within the federally-regulated nature preserve.
“It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, to me, it’s really kind of surprising,” said Westland, who discovered evidence of discarded plants along the trail shortly after the renovation project began last summer. “It’s sort on an ongoing fight.”
According to Westland, she and other employees at the refuge have come across some exotic, invasive plant species within the 6,400-acre wildlife preserve, which can be damaging to the native plant species on site.
“Sometimes these exotics can be transported here naturally,” she said, explaining that bird and other animals often a responsible for transporting the seeds of invasives. “But sometimes, they’re brought here unnaturally.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the refuge, employs an Exotic Strike Team to assist in controlling the spread of invasive or exotic vegetation on refuge territories. Westland noted that the “Ding” Darling NWR also provides a biological team who regularly inspects the refuge grounds for evidence of these alien plants.
“They are always finding something new, but they’re really good at keeping things in check,” said Westland.
However, the ranger thinks that the most recent discovery of dumped vegetative waste — which included grass and yard clippings left on the side of the road near the refuge exit — may be the result of someone who meant no harm.
“Some people may think it’s not a bad thing to do, because it’s natural waste that they’ve cut from their own back yard… but people do have some plants in their yard that aren’t native,” Westland explained. “It doesn’t happen that often, but we do have to address it when it does. People are paying good money to have their trimmings disposed of properly.”
In addition to refuge officials who want any possible violations reported to them, the City of Sanibel also desires to be kept informed.
“Certainly if that is happening, it should be reported to Code Enforcement,” said Holly Downing, Environmental Specialist with the City of Sanibel’s Department of Natural Resources. “Since they are regulated by the federal government, they would handle that matter, but we would want to be notified if anybody sees anyone dumping vegetation illegally.”
While the number of cases involving the illegal dumping of vegetative waste on the island does not appear to be epidemic — perhaps one or two incidents per year, Downing estimated — she called the practice a “continuing problem.”
Asked if the illegal dumping could be traced back to residents who are attempting to remove one of the eight invasive exotic plant species — which includes Brazilian pepper, air potato, melaleuca, earleaf acacia, java plum, exotic inkberry, lead tree and bowstring hemp — identified to be prohibited in the city’s Land Development Code, Downing said it might be.
“There is some work involved with removing exotics,” she said. “And property owners who are using professional haulers to take their vegetative waste away have to incur some expense to have it carried off the island and dumped at a legitimate vegetative waste site.”
Downing explained that before the causeway was constructed, the problem with illegally dumping vegetative waste was “a lot worse.” However, the bigger issue may be the fees associated with paying a service provider to haul the natural debris off the island.
Invasive exotic plants have been introduced on purpose and accidentally to Florida since the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century. It is believed that up to 29 percent of Florida’s plant species growing on their own are “exotic.” Many of these plant species have the ability to act like weeds, spreading extensively on their own, displacing native plants and wildlife, and disrupting natural ecological processes.
According to Downing, if residents plan on removing Brazilian pepper — or other exotic plants — from a developed property using “hand removal” techniques, a Vegetation Permit is not required. A Vegetation Permit is required if you are removing pepper from an undeveloped property; however for “hand removal” this permit is free.
If mechanical equipment is proposed to be used for removal of exotics, a Development Permit is required and a fee is assessed. Permits can be obtained from the city’s Planning Department.
“Permits are not intended to hinder your ability to remove pepper,” the city’s website states, in part. “Rather, they are required to ensure that there are no unintentional impacts to wildlife such as gopher tortoises or other sensitive areas like wetlands.”
While most of the cases of illegally dumping yard or plant waste appear to be isolated, Westland hopes that getting word out to the public may help resolve any future instances.
“Just one person doing this can spoil it for everybody,” she added. “We are addressing it in a polite and informative way. Hopefully, people will realize the harm they may be doing and stop doing it altogether. Just like you can’t take an unwanted pet and just let it go, you can’t do that with plants either. In an environment like this, these exotics just thrive.”
To report any illegal dumping of vegetative waste on refuge property, call 472-1100.