A Tree Hugger Turned Tree Hater

Determined to save his beloved Everglades, Chris Murch has become a melaleuca hit man

Chris Murch has a Bud in his hand and a gleam in his eye. He's fired up about the thought of killing "Mama Melaleuca," the enormous tree in Davie thought to be the progenitor of the melaleuca plague.

"I could take it out in ten minutes," says Murch. "By myself. Just make a little slit around the trunk, squirt in some herbicide, and that's it. It's dead."

The man knows a thing or two about wasting melaleucas. He's the founder and president of the Environmental Restoration Movement (ERM), a small group of activists whose only mission is to cleanse an area of the Everglades of the pernicious trees. For nine years Murch has been waging war on melaleucas, cutting them down by hand, and trying to convince others to spend their weekends doing the same. These days he has help -- the ERM boasts a core membership of three and a rotating corps of volunteers.

On this night, at the group's monthly meeting held at Murch's family's lighting business in Pompano Beach, he's set his sights on the Great White Whale of melaleucas, the biggest trophy of all. Taking out Mother would send the message that the hated melaleuca has no place in South Florida. They all must die. Passion and beer are a potent combination, doubly so in a man who's spent nearly a third of his life dedicated to a task that seems ridiculously enormous.

Mother could fall tonight.
But ERM member Jaime Kropke, age 35, is the voice of reason, reminding Murch that killing a registered landmark [see "Demon Seed," New Times, July 2, 1998] that happens to reside in a public park is just a wee bit illegal. Besides, warns Kropke, it's hard to muster sympathy for your environmental cause from jail.

Mother gets a reprieve.
Murch, age 31, looks like the kind of guy you'd see at a monster truck rally. He has close-cropped black hair that gives way to a few days' growth of beard. He's quick with a smile and generous with his beer.

He grew up in Coral Springs, and his love of the Everglades stems from a childhood spent mucking about in it. He learned to appreciate the river of grass for its diverse animal and plant life, its role in the overall health of South Florida, and its wide-open views. "There's no place like this anywhere else in the world," he says. "Louisiana has swamps, but they're not like the Everglades."

He soon realized his playground was in trouble. In decades past, developers considered the thirsty melaleuca a dandy way to dry up the otherwise useless swamps. But the tree has no competition here. And it grows like a weed. Soon melaleucas were crowding out native plants and animals and taking over as much as 50,000 acres of wetland a year.

For Murch, a hands-on guy, it was time to act. "I've been an environmentalist all my life. I joined the Sierra Club, I joined Greenpeace, but you send them money and that's about it."

So in 1990 he volunteered with the National Park Service to hack down melaleucas in the Big Cypress National Preserve. It was rewarding work but too far away. So he embraced Conservation Area 2B, a melaleuca-infested patch of swamp on the eastern edge of the Everglades. At 30,000 acres, 2B is easily visible from satellite photos, and it harbors some of the oldest stands of melaleuca in South Florida. "We are guessing a lot of that was the original seeding that was done from the air in the '30s," says Dan Thayer, vegetation manager for the South Florida Water Management District. Murch had to convince Thayer he was serious. "He approached us, and we threw out all the usual bureaucratic roadblocks," says Thayer.

Then Murch had to get a state license to handle herbicide. That done, Thayer gave Murch a key to the locked access gate at Atlantic Boulevard where it meets the Sawgrass Expressway and let him have at it.

Talk about a Sisyphean undertaking. There are melaleucas in 2B easily 100 feet tall. There are solid acres of swamp so infested they're virtually impenetrable. Still, Thayer believes Murch and the ERM are making a dent in 2B. "He's my hero," he says.

A levee just wide enough to drive a car on separates Conservation Areas 2A and 2B. Driving west you see 2A on the right, an unbroken sea of sawgrass interspersed with watery channels favored by fishermen in bass boats. To the left is the drier 2B, distinguished by green, bushy islands of melaleuca amid the light brown sawgrass.

To date the state's eradication efforts have largely overlooked 2B. Thayer says the strategy has been to concentrate on outlying areas of the Everglades first, containing the spread, then work back. Murch's group is slicing away right at the heart of the problem.

On a recent Saturday, the ERM's ranks swelled to six: Murch, Scott "Chain Saw" Hemingway, Kropke, two Coral Springs High School students working for scholarship credits, and a reporter. The crew gathers at the crack of 8:30 a.m. in front of the locked access gate. Murch arrives last in his Toyota Corolla crammed with four chain saws, buckets of herbicide, dozens of rubber boots, a plastic bag full of gardening gloves, waist belts, gas and oil, a half-dozen clippers the size and shape of bolt cutters, and a cooler stocked with water and beer.

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