MIAMI – They have odd names like deltoid spurge and tiny polygala, and look like weeds you would yank from a garden. But there is something extraordinary about these scraggly little plants.

They exist in only one place, sprouting from the rocky floor of pine woods scattered across South Miami-Dade’s suburbs.

For the first time since they were declared endangered 20 years ago, an obscure group of plants that rank among the rarest in the world are being reassessed by the federal government. A formal opinion on their health won’t be out for a year, but the outlook already is clear:

“It’s bleak,” said Cindy Schulz, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The biggest threat is easy to see but difficult to overcome.

Much of the forest that nurtured them was bulldozed decades ago, and it has dwindled since to less than 2 percent of its original size – despite protections the county adopted in the late 1980s. By one estimate from the Institute for Regional Conservation, the remaining fragments have shrunk by half over the past decade.

And development pressure is only building. Permit applications have tripled since 2000 at the same time county environmental regulators chase a spate of illegal clearings – by builders, speculators, homeowners, even a church. The woods disappear, lot by lot.

Two months ago, Morningstar Baptist Church hired a crew to clean pine stumps and brush from part of its property. Shortly after, the county Department of Environmental Resource Management issued the Goulds church a citation for clearing 3.5 acres of rockland without a permit.

Ecres Ranson, a Morningstar deacon, said the church was mortified to discover workers had not pulled permits and surprised the land had heavy development restrictions.

“We are not the type of church to violate the rules like that,” Ranson said. “It was an honest mistake.”

But it may have erased another chunk of pineland.

“Once you disturb the soil, it’s essentially a lost cause,” said Keith Bradley, assistant director of the Institute for Regional Conservation, a nonprofit Homestead, Fla., firm that surveyed the rockland last year for Miami-Dade.

The pine forest sprouted from what geologists call the Miami rock ridge, a curving limestone plateau left when the sea receded 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Some 55 miles long, it bends southwest from central Dade to below Homestead.

Carved by creeks flowing from the Everglades, sections of the ridge became small islands of evolution, where plants popped from craggy niches filled with thin beds of decaying pine needles and white sand. About 40 species live only in rockland or its fringe, including five classified in 1985 as federally endangered.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would review the status of three herbs – the tiny polygala, deltoid spurge and Small’s milkpea. The Garber’s spurge and crenulate lead-plant, a shrub, also rank as endangered and at least 10 others are candidates for future listing.

Secreted beneath toothpick-straight slash pines and fan-shaped fronds of saw palmetto, the plants are all but invisible to anyone without expert eye. Tromping through the eight-acre Pineshore Park, Bradley had to lift low-hanging brush to reveal a few palm-size tufts resembling splatters of green paint.

The deltoid spurge – “in rampant bloom,” he laughed.

Pineland plants, born in harsh conditions, are not sexy, which hasn’t helped their cause.

Because mapping has been sketchy, it’s difficult to calculate precisely how much pineland has been lost. The largest remaining chunk, 19,000 acres called Long Pine Key, is in Everglades National Park but its sand-less expanse holds few rare species.

Outside the park, development consumed most of the original 126,000 acres decades ago because the high and dry land was easy to build on. Last year, Bradley’s survey found only 2,255 acres left, half the county estimate from 1995.

County records, based on different criteria and older surveys, indicate less dramatic decline – 335 acres in natural forest communities, which include rocklands and other wild areas, lost since 1980.

Susan Markley, DERM’s chief of ecosystem restoration and planning, said the county has worked to preserve the last pineland stands.

In the 1980s, the county imposed a series of restrictions intended to reduce building impacts in what were designated natural forest communities, areas that include rocklands, coastal hammocks and other rare habitats. While there is wiggle room, it generally limits building to 20 percent of any parcel larger than five acres and blocked developers from chopping them into smaller pieces. On smaller tracts, as much as an acre can typically be cleared.

There also are tax breaks for landowners willing to preserve and maintain rockland and the county has also purchased many of the largest tracts. About 1,600 acres of it are now in public hands.

Regulators also have pursued 36 cases of illegal clearings in the past five years, doling out penalties as high as $94,000 in one blatant case.

But once the damage is done and fines paid, the land can be sold. New owners can even appeal to lift the pineland designation, making the property more valuable and attractive in a spiraling real estate market.

“People are still getting away with it,” Bradley said.

Markley acknowledged that development pressure is soaring, but said there is only so much regulators can do to keep tabs on hundreds of widely scattered tracts.

“We don’t have enough resources in DERM to monitor all these parcels,” she said.

DERM has handled more than 60 applications through July, compared to fewer than 20 five years ago. Most are small, but some major projects are in the pipeline as well.

The University of Miami envisions a 1,200-home village in the Richmond Pine Rocklands near Metrozoo. The zoo has long pondered expansion itself.

Miami-Dade’s school system also is considering building a middle school on a tract it owns next to Killian Senior High that includes the rocklands of Ron Ehmann Park.

All three projects, while still in planning stages, come with pledges to preserve and maintain the healthiest parts of the forest. But some biologists and environmentalists worry encroachments will weaken the surviving pinelands.

Like many Florida systems, rocklands need regular fires to flourish, but “you can’t burn a pineland when it’s right next to a neighborhood,” said Cynthia Guerra, executive director of Tropical Audubon.

“We worry about exotic plants invading, about trash being dumped. These are fragile ecosystems.”

Unlike with rare animals, federal regulators have little power to protect endangered plants unless a federal agency is involved in a project. But, Schulz said, depending on the result, the federal review could direct more research money and attention to rocklands.

Scientists still don’t know a lot of basics about plants like the deltoid spurge.

They don’t know what role they play in the forest, what insects or animals might depend on them, why they sprout some years and disappear others or what might happen if one or more of them simply vanished.

But Bradley said none should reduce the importance of saving them.

“The standard argument is that we don’t know what value these have for people, that these plants might have some cancer-fighting properties or something,” he said. “I hate that argument. They’re part of something unique, an environment that is disappearing. That should be enough on its own.”

(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

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