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.

He leads the way along the levee, followed by the rest of the crew in Hemingway's Grand Marquis. About three miles west, the procession stops. The crew straps on leather holsters to hold the spray bottles, arms itself with chain saws and clippers, and ventures a quarter-mile into the swamp to a small stand of melaleucas.

From the levee 2B looks dry. But it isn't. The mud sucks at your water-filled boots, the sawgrass stings any exposed flesh. Disturbing the sludge brings up the rotten-egg smell of decaying vegetation. And there are unseen obstacles. On the way to a melaleuca stand, both high-school students fall into a gator hole, in which one often finds gators relaxing. The students, luckily, only find themselves slowly sinking in waist-deep mud. Kropke helps pull them out. "I didn't tell them it was a gator hole," he says. "If I had they would have started thrashing around and sunk further in."

Hemingway, who earned his nickname "Chain Saw" when he sliced open his left leg out in the swamp one Saturday, likes to tell the story of the Vietnam vet sent to ERM to work off probation time. The vet spent a few minutes conspicuously sharpening his bush knife on the levee, strapped on his gear, and marched about 125 feet into the swamp before doubling over from exhaustion and refusing to take another step. Hemingway helped him back to the levee and made him pick up trash for the rest of the day. "He talked a lot," says Hemingway, "but he couldn't do the walk."

Melaleucas love Florida, and they're hard to kill. They burn fast and hot, but their papery bark insulates the trunk from damage, and flames help spread the seeds. Saplings must be pulled out by their roots because even one stringy tendril left dangling anywhere near moisture will keep the tree alive. The recently introduced Australian snout beetle is their only natural enemy, but Thayer estimates it will take as many as five more insect species to pose any real threat to the trees.

Aerial applications of herbicide are effective -- several stands in Area 2B are almost completely dead from helicopter drops. But aerial spraying is a blunderbuss that leaves dead melaleucas standing and kills a lot of native vegetation. What's called for is a scalpel.

The procedure goes like this: Cut the tree down about 18 inches from the ground, spray the stump with herbicide, stack the deadwood behind you if it's small enough to lift, repeat ad infinitum. The stumps and fallen trees are left to rot.

ERM uses a herbicide called Arsenal, donated by the American Cyanamid Company. The chemical works by preventing photosynthesis from taking place in the severed trunk. Arsenal is safe for animals but deadly for plants. It has to be squirted carefully on the exposed trunk, lest it kill surrounding vegetation.

In about 45 minutes, Murch and Hemingway have cleared the first small stand of several dozen trees, leaving only a few scraggly-but-native holly trees standing. Native plants are quick to regenerate without the melaleuca, says Murch, and once the flora gets a hold, the fauna soon follows.

Objective two -- a melaleuca island dosed by air a few years ago -- is directly south. Here the crew is on mop-up, searching out trees that survived the earlier aerial assault. It takes the rest of the afternoon to scour the section, often trudging through tangles of dead trees and knee-deep muck to eliminate a single young melaleuca.

By 1 p.m. the crew is whipped. Perhaps 150 melaleucas have fallen. Murch is sweaty and sunburned, his white clothes are black from the knees down. He wants to continue, but his chain saw is dead and his soldiers are close to revolt. All good leaders know when to push and when to ease up, so he relents. Huffing back to the cars, Kropke is nearly swallowed by a sinkhole filled with gray ooze. At the levee Murch pops a beer and surveys the day's progress. "Looks great, doesn't it?" he asks. It's impossible to see any difference.

Last year the ERM got its first grant -- $500 from the Folke H. Peterson Foundation in Hollywood. The money went to buy clippers, boots, and other supplies. This year Murch has upped his request to $100,000. He thinks he might get $10,000. He'd settle for anything, because up to now money to keep going has all come out of members' own pockets. Murch has personally spent $7000, not to mention the time every Saturday away from his two young daughters. "If I thought about it too much, I'd get caught up in the paradigm of thinking it's impossible, and I'd never do it."

But the ERM has big plans. They're going to hit up Bill Gates -- the Bill Gates -- for a donation. They're putting five-gallon water jugs in area schools to collect "Pennies For the Glades." They're dreaming of an airboat or swamp buggy to help them reach melaleuca stands beyond marching distance.

That's the hazy future. For now there's nothing but chain saws and muck holes, rubber boots and melaleuca from horizon to horizon. In nine years the ERM has managed to clear half of the 500-acre parcel of 2B they want to finish by 2001. Two-hundred-and-fifty acres down, 29,750 to go.

"By the time I'm 100 or 150, we'll be done," says Murch.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: Bob_Whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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