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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Volunteers Seek To Restore Historic Virginia Key Beach Park With Thousands Of Native Trees

Sam Turken
More than 20 volunteers planted native trees at the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Friday afternoon.

Volunteers planted more than 200 trees at the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park  in hopes of creating more habitat for migratory birds and native animals.

The plantings at the beach have been a ritual for environmental activists and volunteers for the past decade. They have been gradually converting an area that was once cleared for development into natural forests with strangler figs, lantana and other native trees and shrubs.

“We would like to see every area that’s not used for active play or parking or events to be reverted to a natural area that would support wildlife,” said Gary Hunt, who volunteers with the non-profit, Treemendous Miami which helped organize the planting last Friday.

Hunt said Virginia Key Beach is a feeding ground for migratory birds as they travel up the Eastern coast. But development and invasive species have made the area less supportive for the birds and other native wildlife like crocodiles and turtles.

Parts of the park were first cleared in the 1940s as it became a segregated beach for black residents and tourists. Treemendous Miami and other groups have slowly restored one area with thousands of new trees. But although the park now appears full of vegetation from the nearby Rickenbacker Causeway, several spots remain cleared.

During an interview, Hunt pointed to a dense forest across a nearby parking lot as a model for what the barren areas should look like.

“This is about an 18 or 19-acre forest,” he said, noting that it used to be a lunar landscape before it was restored to its native habitat. 

Friday’s planting featured volunteers lathered with sunscreen and bug spray and donning gloves and knee pads. They dug holes with shovels and pickaxes before filling them with young trees and surrounding them with mulch. 

Khristen Hamilton, 18, was visiting Miami from McLean, Va. for a youth climate summit this past weekend. The two-day conference featured training sessions on how young activists can lead the fight against climate change. Hamilton, whose part of the environmental justice organization This Is Zero, said attending the planting event during her trip was a “no-brainer” once she heard about it.

“We definitely want to come out here and show our support for the community through doing these direct actions in Miami. And I’ve always wanted to plant trees,” she said.

Rachel Puentes, 22, recently graduated from Florida International University and attended the planting after hearing about it from one of her professors. She said the event was her way of actually helping the planet, not just admiring it. 

On Earth Day a couple months ago, "a lot of people posted pictures about how pretty the Earth is and like, 'I went hiking blah, blah, blah.' And I’m just like ‘Okay, but what are you doing about it?’ And I thought keeping myself accountable, I should not just post pictures. I should go out and get involved,'' she said. 

The plantings come as other projects continue to restore the island and mark its historical past. Volunteers have helped rip out invasive species on the North Point and plant native ones. The City of Miami has also unlocked funds to build a museum commemorating the park's civil rights and environmental history. 

Hunt said plantings like the one on Friday will continue multiple times a year. The volunteers will also beautify the area by maintaining the new trees and shrubs. 

"People come to the beach. They go swimming. Their focus may be on getting to the beach and lugging the cooler, but we also want them to appreciate the native plants," he said.