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Native Keys trees in harm’s way

Bills introduced in the Florida Legislature could eliminate any local-government protection for native trees on private property. Native trees and canopy are critical elements of the environment, Florida Keys experts say.
Bills introduced in the Florida Legislature could eliminate any local-government protection for native trees on private property. Native trees and canopy are critical elements of the environment, Florida Keys experts say. Keynoter

Any tree, native or not, on Florida Keys private property could be fair game for the chainsaw if the Florida Legislature adopts controversial bills now under review.

Senate Bill 574 and House Bill 521 would essentially eliminate any protections for native trees or overall tree canopy cover adopted by local governments.

“For us, this would be devastating,” said Karen DeMaria, urban forestry manager for the Key West Tree Commission.

“People could cut down whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, under these bills,” DeMaria said Thursday. “Nothing requires them to replant anything.”

State Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota County) filed the SB 574 “to stop the overreach of our counties and cities,” he wrote in a statement.

“As a property owner, you should not be required to obtain permission from the government ... to remove a tree, on your property,” Steube wrote. “It’s your tree, not the government’s tree.”

Several conservation groups and the Florida Association of Counties are actively opposing the bills.

“Each Florida community should be able to consider the benefits of its tree canopy and determine for itself whether and how to protect it,” says a statement from 1000 1000 Friends of Florida, calling the bills “short-sighted.”

“The impact in the Keys would be horrible. I cannot imagine doing something like this,” said Harry Delashmutt, founder of the Biosurveys firm in Marathon.

Tree regulations in Keys municipalities and Monroe County “are working quite nicely, for the most part,” Delashmutt said. “Some landowners wouldn't agree, but then some landowners want to clear everything and cover the ground with sand.”

Key West’s Tree Commission was formed in the 1970s when “very old trees were being cut down for no reason,” said DeMaria. “You’d be surprised what people want to do sometimes.”

Now the panel meets monthly to review tree-removal applications and discuss possible mitigation.

“This already are pretty bad after Hurricane Irma, so I am fearful,” DeMaria said. “Some are worried about trees coming down in the next storm. Some others might want to cut down a 100-year-old native tree to put in a pool.”

Other Keys areas typically rely on staff biologists and code-compliance officers to oversee significant tree trimming or removal.

“If someone wants to take a tree out for development, or a pool or a deck, the rules allow for that as long as there is mitigation,” Delashmutt said. “The goal is to create equal biomass.”

“Trees are critical for habitat in the Keys,” he said. “There are at least 25 or 30 imperiled species here that rely on trees for nesting and forage.”

The tree bill in the Florida House was filed by Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole (D- Broward) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jake Raburn (R-Valrico).

Opposition to the tree bills is strong, DeMaria said. “But you have to watch them,” she said. “Sometimes if no one says anything, these kinds of laws can get through.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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