WIMAUMA – Each year the 27-year-old Little Manatee River State Park burns acres of land to replenish its natural resources.
It’s a full-time job for ranger Kate Smithson, 37, and her crew, who maintain the park’s ecological balance by monitoring and prescribing periodic burns. The fires destroy invasive plants like Brazilian pepper, Mexican petunias, Caesar weed and cogon grass, while allowing burn-dependent plants to re-seed.
“Eighty percent of the natural plant communities in the park rely on burning to seed,” Smithson said. “Wire grass and sand pines (also called Florida scrubs) are two fire-dependent plants.”
Fire-dependent plants burn but don’t die during a fire, which allows them to produce seeds and sprout within one to two days. Within a year, trees that were surface-burned re-sprout and thrive.
“Wildlife thrives where native plants grow and are attracted to areas that have frequent burns,” said Joe Howard, park manager. “The fires reduce the amount of invasive plants, which can choke out native species and help fire-dependent native plants. The fires help replenish the forest floor.”
The most invasive species are usually brought in by birds carrying seeds of plants that, in some cases, were brought to the area by people to add color to their yards.
For example, Mexican petunias are known for their long stems and purple flowers and are popular in flower beds throughout the area. But they multiply rapidly and take up space, crowding out plants necessary to the park community.
Some native trees, including water oaks, offer shade but kill off indigenous grasses and plants that are essential food sources for animals, like gopher tortoises, foxes, rabbits and deer.
And although attractive, the rapidly spreading Brazilian pepper has taken over swamps and many roadways throughout the state.
“They are highly invasive,” Smithson said. “And most imported plants don’t offer the nourishment animals (need) but kill off the plants that do.”
Many small animals take refuge from the fires.
The gopher tortoise, known for burrowing holes up to 30-feet underground, provides shelter to smaller animals during the burns. Natural advisories like snakes, frogs, foxes and other animals will crowd together (peacefully) in a burrow for survival, Smithson said.
Areas and communities around the park are kept safe with fire trenches and close monitoring by a park crew of seven to 15 members. The Florida Division of Forestry, local fire department and area law enforcement officials are made aware of burn schedules and are available if needed. But, according to Smithson, only one call was made in the past five years due to an unexpected wind.
The 2,500-acre Little Manatee River State Park is at 215 Lightfoot Road, Wimauma.
For more information or to volunteer, call (813) 671- 5005 or visit bit.ly/1NOPcwM.
Freelance writer Dosi Loverro can be reached at [email protected]