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In The Community

heart_pile_jsutt-Promo_Large“We sincerely appreciate the volunteers that came and their hard work and dedication to the land.  By working together, communicating, and sharing our common interests we can better manage the habitat on public land for the benefit of panthers, prey, and people,” - Project Leader Kevin Godsea

Improving habitats by engaging our community was the focus of thinning cabbage palms at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, February 20th.  One hundred Everglades Coordinating Council volunteers and Refuge staff came together to harvest approximately 450 cabbage palms that were shading out the herbaceous understory of Florida panther habitat.  The hearts of these palms were then donated to the 50th Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Florida where a crowd of 40,000 visitors enjoy the culture of South Florida and the taste of swamp cabbage over a two day community event. 

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Sabal palmetto, or cabbage palm, is not only native to Southwest Florida but was also named the official state tree in 1953. However, Florida’s altered hydrology has drastically favored cabbage palms over the typically grassy understory of our South Florida slash pine flatwoods.

Historically, water flowed slowly across Southwest Florida in an annual cycle. This higher level of water would prohibit the germination and sprouting of seedling cabbage palm. With the advent of the canal system, water flow across the landscape was slowed, altered, or completely removed in some instances. This reduction in water levels has allowed cabbage palm to survive in far greater numbers than likely would if the natural hydrologic system were functioning. 

Historical data from the Refuge indicates that approximately 12 cabbage palms were once found in a hectare of land. Today some areas of the Refuge are comprised of nearly 2,200 cabbage palms per hectare.  Despite cabbage palm being a native species, in such great numbers it has drastic consequences on the habitat that many of our native wildlife depend upon in Southwest Florida.

Aerial

Thick Veg

One of the most obvious consequences is altered fire behavior. Cabbage palms are fire tolerant and cause fire to burn hotter and higher in areas where they occur in dense stands. The palms act as fire ladders, carrying fire higher into the overstory of forests when occurring as lower and mid-story vegetation. For these reasons, critical pines such as Pinus elliottii are killed more frequently than would normally occur during prescribed and wildfire events on the refuge and surrounding conservation lands.

Additionally, the abundance of young cabbage palms in the understory decreases the amount and diversity of herbaceous growth that should usually arise in these habitats. This affects species diversity and all of the ecosystem functions that depend on a diverse plant community. 

Refuge biologists, management, and fire staff have determined that control of cabbage palm is a very high priority in restoring ecosystem function, managing fire more effectively, and promoting and enhancing habitat for the native and listed species for which the Refuge was originally created.

The thinning and control of cabbage palm is easier said than done. The process is many hours of hard work in Florida heat and humidity with biting bugs which will shy away most volunteers that aren't prepared let alone have experience with chainsaws. 

Palm Sawing

Booting

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That's where the Everglades Coordinating Council, or Gladesmen as they call themselves, came in. Already equipped with swamp buggies, all-terrain vehicles, chainsaws, personal protection equipment, and positive attitudes, the Gladesmen were willing and able to lend a hand.  

The early morning hours on Saturday, February 20th involved a parade of swamp buggies and all-terrain vehicles as the volunteers arrived at the Refuge to contribute their personal equipment to the good cause of habitat improvement. With a common objective in mind, Gladesmen and Refuge staff focused on a dense patch of cabbage palms and successfully thinned approximately 100 acres.  Since the Refuge is closed to the general public, it was many of the volunteers' first experience of the beauty of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.  

After five hours of sawing down, harvesting, and booting palms, approximately 450 hearts of palms were donated to the 50th Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. The Everglades Coordinating Council provided a homestyle lunch of venison and wild boar to all volunteers and staff.  During lunch, Refuge staff and volunteers spoke about our changing environment, loss of habitat from increasing human populations, and importance of protecting land for our children to enjoy. Many shared stories of their childhood growing up in Southwest Florida and yearning for their future grandchildren to experience the wonder and opportunities that public lands bring to growing minds.

Lunch

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Page Photo Credits — Piles of cabbage palm hearts - Jessica Sutt/USFWS, Everglades Council volunteers collecting swamp cabbage on buggy - Chelsea Rioux, Family volunteers from Everglades Council - Chelsea Rioux, Everglades Council volunteers - Jessica Sutt/USFWS
Last Updated: Mar 03, 2016
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