Why did a neon green fern spark an environmental, government showdown?

A wild fight over a snarling fern threatened the status of the last remaining piece of the northern Everglades in Palm Beach County, but a compromise in the year-long battle promises salvation for the emerald gem in Florida’s river of grass.

The dispute — one with a uniquely Florida flavor — was between the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning a 65-year relationship that required the federal government to control invasive species in the popular Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Chiefly, lygodium. an insidious neon green weed, has been choking out critical tree islands needed to sustain the refuge’s unique ecosystem.

The district, which is landlord to the refuge-managing wildlife service, felt the service was shirking its duties and sent an eviction notice in August 2016. At stake was public access, restoration and preservation of Florida’s largest national wildlife refuge.

“Last year, we were in a very bad place,” said Celeste De Palma, Everglades policy associate for Audubon Florida. “This is a relationship, and like any relationship, there are good times and bad times.”

This month, the water management district’s governing board gave the go-ahead to finalize a new 20-year lease on the land with Fish and Wildlife.

The contract puts the onus for invasive cleanup on the district, but the wildlife service agreed to pay at least $1.25 million annually to the district for the effort. If only $1.25 million is paid, the 20-year lease is reduced by one year. If $2 million or more is paid, the lease is increased by a year.

More recreational activities, including hunting and fishing similar to what is available in state-managed areas, will also be a responsibility of the Fish and Wildlife service. The water management district’s python eradication program will be extended to include the refuge.

“At one point, we were really concerned about our future on water conservation area 1,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge Supervisor Kathy Burchett, about the refuge, which is also a designated conservation area. “The district had concerns about our efforts, but we have overcome all of the obstacles.”

The initial agreement between the district and the Fish and Wildlife Service was penned in 1951 and renegotiated for another 50 years in 2002. The hefty paperwork outlined 13 responsibilities of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which included things as innocuous as holding an annual Everglades Day and as formidable as cleansing the refuge of exotic plants.

Burchett said her agency struggled with controlling the invasive lygodium in the 144,000-acre refuge, and that the district has had some success in its two other water conservation areas that are wetter — a deterrent to the flowerless plant.

“There is no quick fix for lygodium for anybody, anywhere,” Burchett said.

The fern is a tangle of fronds that can grow vertically, climbing trees and crawling over shrubs to form a thick blanket that smothers native flora.

First detected in Florida in the late 1950s, it went mostly unnoticed until something triggered a growth spurt in the 1990s. Because it thrives on remote tree islands reachable only by airboat, it can establish a foothold before being noticed overtopping canopies of dahoon holly, wax myrtle and red maple.

Once established, the fern sends out underground shoots that can regrow an entire plant if not fully removed.

In the past 20 years, the refuge has seen a 600 percent increase in lygodium, according to the water management district.

“The district has a proven track record of success fighting these invasive plants,” said water management district Land Resources Bureau Chief Rory Feeney. “Working with our federal and state partners, we are ready to take the fight directly to this fern and break its chokehold on the refuge.”

The agreement should be finalized in early spring, Burchett said.

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