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In the landscape: Mangroves

Red mangroves are one of three species found in the Florida Keys. They’re known for their distinctive aerial prop roots.

Red mangroves are one of three species found in the Florida Keys. They’re known for their distinctive aerial prop roots.

By Karen Quist

Ever wonder why you can’t just cut down those trees that prevent you from having an unobstructed view of the water?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is tasked with regulating mangrove trimming under the 1996 Mangrove Trimming & Preservation Act. The purpose of the act is to preserve mangrove habitat while respecting a property owner’s desire to have access to or views of the water.

Mangroves are protected because they play an important role in our coastal ecosystem. These shoreline tree communities filter storm runoff and trap sediments that might otherwise flow offshore and smother seagrasses and coral reefs. They provide food and shelter for wildlife and serve as nurseries for juvenile fish. And, perhaps most importantly for homeowners, mangroves protect waterfront properties by stabilizing the shoreline and absorbing the wind during storms.

There are three types of mangroves in Florida: red, black and white. They’re usually arrayed along the shore in that order – red closest to the water and white farthest away. The red is the easiest to identify, with its distinctive prop roots that extend downward and are often immersed in water. Those spindly roots are why it’s sometimes called the “Walking Tree.” The black mangrove extrudes salt through its leaves, features fragrant white flowers and produces finger-like pneumatophores (“snorkel roots”) around the base of its trunk. The white mangrove’s nondescript root structure makes it harder to identify, but you’ll usually find this tree with thick leathery leaves relatively high and dry at the back of the mangrove fringe.

It’s estimated that there are about 500,000 acres of mangroves along the Central and South Florida coastline, just a fraction of what was growing here in the mid-20th century — that’s why the state so closely monitors what happens to that remaining acreage. Excessive or improper trimming reduces the trees productivity and usefulness as habitat and property protection. With some forethought, it’s possible to preserve these important trees AND your sunset view.

The 1996 Mangrove Trimming & Preservation Act covers who needs a permit to trim mangroves and who doesn’t, how much of the mangroves can be cut and how often and who can do the work, among other things. It covers a lot of ground – enough to fill 10 single-spaced pages – so we can only offer some key highlights here.

The act defines “trim” as cutting branches, twigs, limbs and foliage. “Alter” means anything else, such as removing, defoliating or destroying the tree. Generally speaking, you can’t trim any mangrove so it’s shorter than 6 feet from the ground to the top of the greenery. And you can’t take a 24-foot-tall tree and cut it to 6 feet all in one day – or even in one year. The trimming must be done in stages, usually no more than 25 percent a year.

A lot of what the typical homeowner would want to do is exempt from permitting. Wondering whether you need a permit to trim that part of your landscape? It never hurts to ask, so call the DEP’s office in Marathon at 305-289-7070. You can also consult with a state-designated Professional Mangrove Trimmer; check the list here. If your planned work doesn’t require a permit, you can request a letter confirming that. It’s also a good idea to take pre-trim and post-trim photos in case questions arise later.

There are two key questions you have to answer in determining whether you need a permit: How deep is the mangrove fringe and how tall are the trees in it? If the mangrove fringe is less than 50 feet deep and the trees are between 6 and 24 feet tall, you may not need a permit. (However, trees over 10 feet tall must be trimmed by a PMT.)

Other important factors: If you have less than 150 feet of shoreline, you can trim all of your mangrove trees; more than 150 feet and you can only trim 65 percent. It goes without saying that you can only trim on property that belongs to you, so no trimming your neighbor’s mangroves! The use of herbicides is prohibited.

There are several accepted methods of trimming. The most traditional is to trim the top (canopy) of the trees. But people who want a view from their pool, for instance, may want to request a General Permit to selectively remove lower limbs that create a “window” effect through some or all of their mangroves.

The DEP issues two kinds of General Permits – one that covers height reductions on deep mangrove fringe (50 to 500 feet deep, trimmed to no less than 6 feet tall) — and one that covers navigational trimming. The general permit costs $250 and requires you to hire a Professional Mangrove Trimmer.

If you’re building a house or have received a permit to install a dock, seawall or boat ramp, any mangrove alteration or trimming will be addressed specifically in that permit.

The DEP produces an excellent booklet, “Mangrove Trimming Guidelines for Homeowners.” You can also get more information, including a downloadable copy of the 1996 Mangrove Trimming & Preservation Act, from the section of the DEP’s website dedicated to the topic

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