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New skid-steer enhances land restoration capability

By Staff | May 15, 2019

PHOTO PROVIDED The root rake grappler attachment allows the habitat management team to grab exotic vegetation, debris and downed trees and move them to piles. It is shown carrying a Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) to a pile of debris after ripping it out of the ground — roots and all.

When the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation acquires land for conservation, the native habitat of that land has usually been negatively impacted and requires restoration. SCCF’s Wildlife & Habitat Management staff is charged with this task.

Before development, Sanibel’s interior wetlands were an open savannah, maintained by fire from lightning strikes. With development, fire must be tightly controlled in order to preserve homes and private property – but that means that woody shrubs and trees begin to encroach on that savannah, replacing the open grasslands that are suited to Sanibel’s native wildlife.

SCCF recently purchased a John Deere skid-steer -a compact track loader, similar to a Bobcat – to aid in habitat restoration. The purchase was made possible through gifts from the Wescustogo Foundation/Nanovic Family; Donald Slavik Family Foundation; Linda and Wayne Boyd; Leah and Doug Beck; Pfeifer Realty Group; Kay Redmond; and Kris and Doug Ryckman.

The new skid-steer enables SCCF to handle larger projects that were previously contracted out. It can remove undesirable trees – up to 5 inches in diameter – from the ground in seconds. Previously, trees were cut down by hand and left in place on the ground, deterring the growth of desirable ground cover plants. Now, the fallen trees can be moved to piles or mulched, allowing grasses and other low plants to grow in their place.

Additionally, the skid-steer is less likely to get stuck in mud when working wildlands because it uses tracks, not wheels. Tracks provide more surface area on the ground, making it easier to maneuver over large obstacles.

PHOTO PROVIDED Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Land Conservation steward and Chief Operator Victor Young stands next to the new skid-steer and a debris pile he stacked.

Along with the skid-steer, the forestry package was purchased to protect the vehicle as much as possible on wildlands. Acquisition of the skid-steer also enables SCCF to have two pieces of heavy machinery working on a project. After 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the clean-up of SCCF’s fire breaks and trails took about six months with just one tractor and low manpower. With the skid-steer and tractor working simultaneously, it would have taken one-quarter of that time.

The skid-steer will greatly enhance SCCF’s habitat restoration work. Through the combination of controlled burning – where possible – wildland mowing, and the clearing of both non-native – and native – invasive vegetation with the skid-steer, it will be possible to more efficiently restore the open canopy grasslands, particularly Spartina marshes, that once covered Sanibel’s interior.

The skid-steer will also provide measurable results and public visibility of the restoration of Sanibel’s natural habitat to a more historic state.

Chris Lechowicz is the director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Wildlife & Habitat Management Program.