Most of us had never heard the island, where TV networks set up their video villages in view of Mar-a-Lago when the president is in town, called anything but the Southern Boulevard causeway.
It’s always disconcerting not to recognize your hometown when seen through the kaleidoscopes of out-of-town media.
But maps inform that the island is indeed called Bingham. And there’s more than one.
In fact, Bingham Island comes in a six pack of islands, a wild, almost-impenetrable mangrove-fringed tangle trailing south into the Lake Worth lagoon, a short walk from President Trump’s sumptuous vacation home.
And they hold secrets.
They’re not the kind of clandestine intelligence Trump’s Secret Service agents will go crashing through the tropical forest after or that a congressional sub-committee will seek.
These secrets are older and more profound.
Inside the largest island, behind a screen of weedy trees and dead Australian pine trunks eerily festooned with staring vultures, a last bit of primeval Florida struggles to survive.
An antique biosphere of old and rare trees, some not seen in this part of Florida for a century, grows untouched in the center of these islands. Among them is an ancient gumbo limbo tree that may be more than 300 years old.
“Palm Beach has an absolute treasure in these 22 acres of islands,” Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said of the botanical wonderland maintaining a fragile foothold. “There are not many islands like this around anywhere.”
Not far from Mar-a-Lago’s gold ballroom, thick, contorted limbs of a giant tree with red, peeling bark reach for the sun, as botanist Richard Moyroud believes this gumbo limbo has done for about 315 years, long before Europeans arrived in what was known as the lake country.
The tree may be one of the oldest of its species in Florida, growing for centuries on these undisturbed islands as one of the country’s wealthiest communities grew up around it.
Today, the islands are inhospitable and thick with invasive foliage.
Trying to walk the island’s marshy perimeter is a battle with shrubby undergrowth, mangrove stumps and ankle-grabbing vines. Fast-growing exotic mahoe trees are everywhere, robbing the natives of space and sunlight.
Farther in, the interior is almost completely shaded by a canopy of trees marked by decades of lightning strikes and hurricane limb loss.
Moyroud has spotted ironwood, paradise, mastic and caper trees on the islands, as well as ancient-looking green buttonwoods and crabwood, a tree he says has been extinct in Palm Beach County for 100 years. He believes the island’s crazily tilting sabal palms, some up to 50-feet tall, are about 150 years old.
“This is more important than a museum to me,” said Moyroud, who restores native habitats through his Lake Worth company, Mesozoic Landscapes. “This has more value than objects people put in a museum.”
Katie Carpenter, a filmmaker and producer for Animal Planet’s “Ocean Warriors” program, is among a group of Palm Beach residents who have raised money to restore the islands.
“They are a treasure chest of antique Florida habitats,” said Carpenter, who produces nature documentaries.
She’s looking forward to the bird life that habitat restoration will bring, grimacing at the vultures roosting overhead. Native plants provide food for native and migratory birds.
“I know there’s a heron rookery in there somewhere,” Draper said. “I saw a whole group of night herons, I think they were, going in.”
A few years ago, he spotted a reddish egret, one of South Florida’s rarest wading birds, in the shallows between islands.
Since 1942, the islands have formed a wildlife sanctuary managed by the Audubon Society under a 99-year lease with the Bingham-Blossom-Bolton family.
Visitors are prohibited except with Audubon permission. Kayakers can paddle between the islands, but may not launch or land on the islands’ beaches.
(North of the causeway, the island known locally as Fisherman’s Island and on some maps as Palmsicle Island, is also an Audubon sanctuary.)
The Binghams were the first to build a home on the ocean side of Palm Beach in 1894, instead of on Lake Worth, which was then still a fresh water lake. Their property, where Southern Boulevard meets South Ocean, grew to include this clutch of islands.
Yet, the islands have been a mess for years. Draper acknowledges years of Palm Beach residents’ complaints about the property’s weedy, uncontrolled vegetation and access by trespassers who rolled back the chain link fence surrounding the property.
A contractor hired by Audubon began removing exotic plants in early March, then replanted some native groundcovers which are beginning to spread over the sandy dune.
A temporary fence now extends into the water with a sign warning that trespassing on the site is a felony.
Audubon is waiting for the Town of Palm Beach to issue another removal permit and approve the organization’s plan for replanting with native species, which have already been purchased.
An earlier Audubon plan for the sanctuary with hiking trails, yoga meditation areas and educational displays was scrapped following discussions with Palm Beach officials, who said the islands’ zoning code and land use plan don’t allow public use.
Last week, the town began developing an ordinance to prohibit recreational uses at conservation areas such as Bingham Islands.
“What’s been surprising to me is a certain amount of, ‘Well, what is Audubon up to?,’ when the only thing we’re up to is to eradicate exotics, clean it up and find out what the people of Palm Beach want it to be,” said Draper. “We don’t want to do anything the town doesn’t want us to do.”
Draper hopes to complete restoration behind the sanctuary’s fence in the next few months, with the town’s help and blessing.
Then, he says, with upstart pest plants gone, this remaining vestige of Florida’s past will heal itself.
While reporters across the road documenting the modern complications of presidential politics use Bingham Island for their datelines, the far older world of the Bingham Islands will go on nearby, uncaring, unseen, and against all odds, persisting.