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Saw berry picking experiment criticized

By CJ HADDAD - | Sep 16, 2021

A Lee County Parks & Recreation exercise involving saw palmetto berries on a 20/20 Conservation property has garnered attention — and criticism — from Cape Coral environmental advocates.

County officials say it was simply a one-off exploratory measurement taken for analysis.

The county, using a certified permitted vendor, harvested saw palmetto berries at Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve, a parcel under 20/20 Conservation protection. Saw palmetto berry harvesting is illegal on public lands. County spokesperson Betsy Clayton said the county is not considering a palmetto berry harvest, that the exercise has concluded, and that no further exploratory harvestings are planned at this time.

“The purpose of the exploratory exercise was to try a different strategy to curb the illegal harvesting,” Clayton said in an email. “When the exploratory exercise was happening, county supervisors and rangers were on site during the entire harvest. The 20% of berries that were not removed were left on the plants, unpicked. No piles of berries were left on the ground.”

The vendor, JWT Enterprises of Southwest Florida LLC, was a certified permitted vendor who completed its services in August. Clayton said that in exchange for permitting this, the certified vendor was required to:

– Provide security on the preserve to ensure that illegal activity was not occurring.

– Remove any litter on the preserve.

– Maintain at least 20% of the berries on each plant for wildlife.

– Provide 50% of the value of the harvest to the county.

Revenue generated that came back to the county totaled $15,696.71. Clayton said the money will go to operations and maintenance of 20/20 preserves.

“As part of the exploratory exercise –before the harvest — the county consulted several vendors, UF/IFAS (The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) and FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) biologist. At this time, staff continues to monitor the preserve post-harvest,” Clayton added.

Lee County Parks & Recreation rangers coordinate with law enforcement officers from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to protect, patrol and enforce against the illegal activity of saw palmetto berry harvesting. Clayton said, “Despite the coordinated, multi-team approach, the size of the county’s properties create challenges to protect against people stripping the berries from preserves.”

In a letter to County Manager Roger Desjarlais, members of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife and Wildlife Trust voiced their opposition to the harvesting of the saw palmetto berry.

“The state-threatened gopher tortoises, a keystone species, rely on the berries of the saw palmetto as a food source to survive,” the letter states, in part. “Harvesting will irreparably place gopher tortoises under further imperiled circumstances.

“Reducing the food source for our wildlife — which is already being done due to development — should never be allowed in county-owned preserves. This recent so-called ‘experiment’ supposes an inexplicable departure and deviation from all previous county decisions to preserve and protect our local wildlife.”

County officials updated the Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC) of the harvesting exercise on Wednesday, telling members that staff that analysis will occur in the coming months.

“The county will work with stakeholders, and then updates will be provided to County Administration, CLASAC and the Board of County Commissioners,” Clayton said.

Saw palmetto berry season is currently in its height. Florida law requires individuals to obtain a permit to harvest the berries of this native plant, although Lee County parks and Conservation 20/20 preserves are always closed to berry harvesting.

Saw palmetto berries are a critical food source for a variety of wildlife species, including black bear, white-tailed deer and the state-threatened gopher tortoise. Berries that are harvested legally with a permit are primarily used as an ingredient in herbal-medicinal products. Rangers with Lee County Parks & Recreation and deputies from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office will issue citations or arrest individuals caught illegally picking berries. In past years, citations have been issued to individuals illegally picking berries at preserves in east Lee County, as well as in North Fort Myers, Cape Coral and on Pine Island. Berries that are seized are redistributed onto the lands from which they are harvested

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj