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Volunteers give Palm Beach County's Seacrest Natural Area a 'scrubbing'


volunteers with invasive plant
Kelvin Hoag, right, holds the mother-in-law's tongue he dug up at the Seacrest Natural Area in Boynton Beach. Al McClain, another volunteer, is at the left. Mother-in-law's tongue is an invasive plant.

BOYNTON BEACH — It’s 8 a.m. on a late summer’s Saturday. Temperatures are in the 80s, heading toward the 90s under a bright, clear sky. The humidity, as usual, is off the charts.

In other words, it’s the kind of morning when most people are contemplating a lazy day around the house or at the beach. Anything to keep cool.

But at the Seacrest Natural Area in Boynton Beach, nine volunteers — high school kids, college students and older adults — gather under the leadership of Palm Beach County Environmental Analyst Ann Mathews to spend the next three hours picking up trash and ridding the scrubby tract of invasive plants.  Their task for the day will be to patrol a half-mile of the area’s south-southeast perimeter. It’s not a walk in the park even under most temperate conditions. Some are there to meet school requirements, others because of a desire to give back.

“I thought it was about time I contributed to something,” Boynton Beach resident Kelvin Hoag said, pausing after shoveling up a mother-in-law’s plant, making sure to get roots and all. Hoag, who had visited Seacrest once before with his family, was volunteering for the first time.

Al McClain of Palm Beach Gardens, is a regular, pitching in two or three times a month to clean up Palm Beach County’s network of 33 natural areas. He noted one regular  — not present for the Seacrest cleanup — who works the nightshift at his regular job, then puts in two or three hours volunteering after he’s clocked out.

“Ann does a fantastic job,” McClain said. “She keeps everybody motivated.”

Said Mathews, “It’s not the quantity of volunteers. It’s the quality.”

The natural areas, which range in size from as small as 8 acres to nearly 3,000, are Palm Beach County’s hidden gems. They’re intended to preserve strands of increasingly rare habitat and protect native plants and animals that live there, some of which are endangered. Nature comes first, humans second. Most have minimal facilities —  Seacrest has couple of hiking trails, a parking lot and an educational kiosk — to keep the land as close to its original, natural state as possible.

ann mathews holding balsam apple
Palm Beach County Environmental Analyst Ann Mathews examines some balsam apple pulled during the cleanup.

Many of the natural areas are surrounded by development — Seacrest’s 54 acres are bordered north and south by homes, east by the FEC Railroad and west by Seacrest Boulevard — so they can become trash magnets, especially along the perimeters of the property, Mathews said.

Invasive plants, such as mother-in-law’s tongue (also known as snake plant), rosary pea and balsam apple are also a problem.  If left unchecked, the non-natives can crowd out the natives, and in some cases deprive native animals of the plants they need to survive.

The efforts of the volunteers are critical to maintaining the natural areas. In 2012, volunteers hauled more than 54,000 pounds of trash from the sites. Among the stranger items they removed: a mannequin, an office copier and a deer decoy. Saturday’s haul totaled more than 300 pounds of assorted, generally mundane litter — cans, bottles, paper and plastic — plus invasive plants.

Volunteers contribute in other ways, planting trees (5,500 red mangrove seedlings alone last year) shrubs, grasses and wildflowers, installing fence, maintaining hiking trails and other, sundry chores.

The work isn’t without reward, however. Mathews gave Saturday’s group a guided tour as they made their way back to the parking lot. She pointed out a bay tree, picking a leaf and breaking it open to share its kitchen-familiar fragrance, and huge golden orb spiders that weave enormous webs that span 10, 15, 20 feet across the sky — the ladies of the forest, she calls them.

Almost as if by cue, a gopher tortoise makes a brief appearance as the morning draws to a close. Gopher tortoises are endangered, because the scrublands where they live have all but disappeared, devoured by development. They’re one the reasons why preserving places like Seacrest are so important and why efforts to keep them as pristine as possible are vital.

The tortoise scampers off — they can move deceivingly fast, Mathews says —  to do whatever it is that tortoises do on a Saturday morning.

The volunteers do the same.

gopher tortoise
A gopher tortoise scampers by the volunteers as they return to the parking lot. Gopher tortoises, an endangered species, are one of the reasons why the Seacrest Natural Area is so vital.


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