Boynton Beach, Florida — Rolf Olson idles the airboat alongside a spindly melaleuca tree and ticks off the endless list of invasive plants bedeviling the 145,000-acre Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
The Australia-native melaleuca, of course. Old world climbing fern. Australian pine tree. Brazilian pepper tree. Water lettuce. Hydrilla. Cattail.
Nearly one-third of the refuge is covered in invasives, strangling exquisite plants, harming wildlife, clogging waterways, hindering recreation and blotting out some of the Everglades’ most memorable vistas.
Olson, the refuge manager, offers a solution.
“We can treat huge areas with fire,” he says as a young buck ambles across the wet prairie one recent summer morning. “It’s a very effective tool.”
In more ways than one. Fire — prescribed and carefully managed — can be a wildlands’ best friend. Wildlife officials tout its ecological benefits. Hunters, fishermen and birders laud its cattail-clearing, nutrient-adding attributes. Hydrologists praise unimpeded water flows.
And, perhaps most importantly, controlled burns reduce the vegetative fuel that builds up year after year and can turn an otherwise inconsequential lightning strike into a catastrophic fire. Yet another disastrous wildfire season out West underscores the wisdom of prescribed fire.
Smokey Bear was wrong. Fire is our friend.
“Prescribed fires are very critical,” says James Schuette, the land manager for the South Florida Water Management District, which leases the refuge land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage. “The lightning capital of the U.S. is not too far from the refuge and the wildlands are going to burn — either on our schedule or Mother Nature’s. If we didn’t [proactively] burn a million acres in Florida each year we’d be on the news a lot more than we are.”
No region of the country purposefully sets more fires than the Southeast. Prescribed fire is a “management tool” used, on average, 300 times a year by the USFWS from North Carolina to Louisiana. In the 2016 fiscal year, for example, the Service burned more than 205,000 acres. Nationwide, the agency torched 384,000 acres. More acreage is burned annually at Loxahatchee than any other refuge.
“Ever since we started managing fire we’ve seen a dramatic drop in wildfire acres,” says Jon Wallace, the USFWS's No. 2 fire coordinator in the Southeast. “Burning Loxahatchee is imperative to the well-being of our three million neighbors in Palm Beach and Broward counties. It also helps restore the Everglades to its historical, natural state.”
The deer disappears onto a tree island as Olson steers the airboat south over sawgrass marshes and water lily sloughs. It isn’t yet 9 a.m., but the heat builds and cumulus clouds form over the Atlantic Ocean 10 miles eastward. Loxahatchee is surprisingly alive with wildlife this July day: snowy egrets and great blue herons fly languorously away as the Cline airboat zips by. Male alligators, protecting turf, bellow at the engine’s thrum.
The water is unusually high. It has been a wet spring and summer. A budding algae bloom, outside Loxahatchee, complicates the already delicate water-management dance.
Hurricanes and ensuing flooding in the 1940s kept millions of northern Everglades acres underwater for months. A massive flood-control project created more than 1,000 miles of canals and levees with pumps sending water to farms or the ocean. Loxahatchee was created in 1951 from one of the water conservation areas primarily as a migratory bird reserve. The USFWS manages the 221-square mile refuge for the state.
Decades of messing with Mother Nature came with a steep price, though. A century ago, the Everglades covered 11,000 square miles. The “River of Grass” rolled, albeit slowly, down the Kissimmee River through Lake Okeechobee and into Florida Bay. Today, it’s half the size, and agriculture, urbanization and flood control projects have siphoned off 40 percent of the water that once flowed through today’s Everglades National Park.
Phosphorous, nitrogen and mercury have leached into the Everglades, polluting the water and creating biological conditions ripe for invasive plants and animals. The wading bird population, for example, has declined 90 percent over the last century. Half of the biologically rich tree islands have disappeared or succumbed to melaleuca, climbing ferns and foreign-born trees. The waters clog with hydrilla, water lettuce and cattails. Pythons — who’ve killed virtually every small animal in the national park — edge ever closer to Loxahatchee.
“If you’re able to run fire through there, and get rid of sawgrass and cattail that are not growing too vigorously, then the new vegetation will pull nutrients like phosphorus out of the water and improve water quality,” Schuette says. “And keeping a nice, natural, healthy ecosystem makes it more resilient to invasion by exotic plants.”
Taking on greater importance
Loxahatchee is a biologically brilliant tapestry of ecosystems: wet prairies; freshwater sloughs; sawgrass fields; tree islands, cattail marshes and a 400-acre cypress swamp. It attracts roughly 250 types of songbirds, waterfowl, wading birds and raptors. Nearly 70 state or federally threatened or endangered species, including the Florida panther, American crocodile and wood stork, call the Everglades home.
“That’s a snail kite over there,” says Olson, halting the airboat alongside a 10-foot high thicket of wax myrtle, sawgrass and other sedges. The endangered, medium-sized hawk perches on a nearby tree limb.
“Right after we burned this area 10 years ago we found snail kite nests,” Olson says. “From a biological or ecological standpoint, birds have a hard time getting in here and feeding or nesting. So when you knock it back like this (with fire), it just opens it up for feeding. Even while the brush is still smoking, the birds return. Snails and invertebrates thrive. That’s food for birds.”
Olson trades the airboat for a Chevy Silverado and the Loxahatchee tour heads to the south end of the teardrop-shaped refuge which is open to hunters, hikers, bikers and kayakers. He stops at the Hillsboro Canal entrance to chat with “Wild Lyle,” who runs airboat eco-tours. Nearby, two men fish for bass, catfish and crappie while an alligator patiently waits 20 feet away for non-keepers.
“There are acres and acres of cattail. It’s caused by high phosphates in the water,” Olson says. “Duck hunters really want it burned so they can get in there and hunt it better. So we knock back the cattails as much as we can. We burned this whole area here last year.”
Olson, 56, has been at Loxahatchee since 2002 and the manager since 2005. He tries to burn 20,000 acres a year. Prescribed fires will soon take on greater importance as Olson expands recreational opportunities, hunting in particular, across the refuge.
“Every hunter loves burning. It opens up the marsh and lets the sun shine on the water increasing the submerged aquatic vegetation that is attractive to wildlife — and the duck hunter,” says Newton Cook, president of United Waterfowlers Florida, Inc. who hunts and fishes Loxahatchee maybe two dozen times a year. “But burning creates liabilities with smoke. Florida has a lot of old people who have trouble breathing and they start calling 911 whenever they smell smoke.”
'We don't want any mishaps'
As Palm Beach County grows — its population is expected to nearly double to 2.7 million people by 2060 — prescribed burns could become more problematic. Under-construction houses and apartments already line Loxahatchee Road all the way to the refuge’s southeast corner. The refuge will soon be half-surrounded by towns, subdivisions, industrial parks, rock quarries and landfills as development shifts to the preserve’s western edge. The likelihood of a wildfire running off the refuge and into a community will only grow.
“Looking at all that fuel and thinking, ‘Good lord, what if that catches on fire during a drought and the wind kicks it toward Wellington?’” wonders Michael O’Dell, the assistant planning director for the town of 65,000 residents on Loxahatchee’s northeastern edge. “You see what’s going on in California. That’s something that could be really devastating to the village of Wellington.”
Residents saw the smoke from a June wildfire that grew to 600 acres in the refuge’s northwestern corner. But a prescribed burn two weeks earlier wiped out the vegetation that could’ve turned the fire into a full-blown conflagration. It fizzled a few days later without causing harm.
“People, especially in south Florida, are not used to prescribed burns. They’re very nervous whenever they see fire or smoke,” Olson says. “But we take strong precautions. We don’t want any mishaps — either in town or across our beloved Everglades.”
Editor's note: This story was originally written for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is republished with permission here.