Smashing Glass for Conservation

Jacob rests on the front loader following a tough day in the field.

When I signed up for the Student “Conservation” Association’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB), I thought knew what to expect. We’d be doing some planting, some harvesting, some taking care of the land. In my past ASB experiences, we even had the opportunity to transplant some native species, survey the abundance of endangered tortoises, and remove invasive mustard grass. But never had we demolished a house. Now I know, when it comes to conservation, expect the unexpected.

A little bit of background: when parks and preserves are established, land must somehow be acquired. In general terms, the government makes a huge purchase of a vast amount of land to get a park started. The boundaries of the park are set out, and outline maps are drawn. Unfortunately for the National Park Service, the land they wish to acquire is not usually all held by the same seller. For this reason, they must negotiate to purchase the properties they desire.

Putting aside the occasional donation, the vast majority of park land must be purchased. Two basic methods exist for doing so: through willing sellers or eminent domain. The former is the ideal. The latter is politically unpopular, lengthy, expensive, and often involves immense legal battles.

Big Cypress’ Pete Roth presenting the project plan to the team.

For this reason, parks generally prefer to acquire new land through willing sellers. Since Big Cypress was established in 1974, the Preserve’s land acquisition team has been actively working to buy “inholdings” in the park, when residents decide they are ready to sell.

Each and every one of these purchases is integral to returning Big Cypress to its natural processes. Of paramount concern to the preserve’s ecology is the disruption caused by homes and roads, impeding the flow of the sheet water, the lifeline of all natural processes occurring within the park.

Having been built in a swamp, roads and homes needed to be raised in order to be constructed in the region. Canals were dug to provide fill and grade for trails and trunks. Pits were hollowed to provide dry pads on which to lay the foundation of homes. All of these human changes to the fragile ecosystem caused unforeseen changes in the surrounding landscape. Invasive plants overgrew the new “dry” ecosystems. Down water trees perished due to less available water in the swamp prairie. The preserve’s animal life was forced into new regions as trenches flooded and mounds dried. The impact of human habitation in the swamp extended far beyond the one acre property on which its inhabitants had settled.

What now, you ask? Why buy up all these private lands within the preserve if they have already altered the makeup of the ecosystem so drastically? What will the preserve do with so many driveways, sheds, and houses?

Demolish them, of course. That is the simple answer. And that is the work we were called in to help with.

Recycled metal bound for the scrapyard.

In demolishing the homes, the preserve can rid the property of all signs of human habitation. Once the house is gone, the artificially raised land can be graded back to natural slope, restoring the flow from Lake Okeechobee all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Demolishing is one thing, demolishing with concern for the environment is another. Yes, the National Park Service could contract for a company to come in, destroy the remaining homes, and haul the debris out. But would that be ecologically wise? Would the ground hence be polluted with heavy metals? With plastics and glass, never to leave the confines of the Preserve?

Indeed, that doesn’t seem to be right approach for the Preserve to take. Instead, each home is carefully taken apart, recycling every possible material while mitigating the work’s impact on the surrounding lands.

Smashing Glass for Conservation ©.

As a crew, we aided in this process. We spent the day removing valuable metals from the property, readying them for delivery to a Naples scrapyard. We consolidated glass panes into a recyclable lot, and removed waste from the surrounding yard. Ceiling panels were disposed of, and hazardous wires were cut.

The Preserve dedicates two full-time staff to perform this work on a regular basis. With a backlog of 200+ homes, Pete and Reynolds’ work can’t keep up with the Preserve’s demand. This is where SCA crews come in. With ten young, healthy students scavenging these homes for the week, the work is taken care of at lightning speed, vastly accelerating the process leading to the land’s rehabilitation.

Smashing Glass for Conservation? I spy a new catchphrase in the making.

Hasta mañana,

Justin