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Arbor Day Protest in Palm Beach Gardens: Monkeywrenching the Women's Club (updated)

The ladies of the Palm Beach Gardens Women's Club are perturbed. They are resentful and suspicious of our county's environmental activists and their anarchist tendencies. Naturally enough.

In alliance with the City of Palm Beach Gardens, the club is celebrating Arbor Day today, gathering at 9:30 this morning for a tree planting ceremony. The enviros and anarchists object, finding it hypocritical that the ladies would let the city pose as nature's friend, when the City plans (the e's and a's say) to destroy one of South Florida's largest remaining stands of coastal pine flatwoods, the Briger Tract.

See also:
- Activists Protest Scripps Plan for Briger

The contrast between the city and the Briger Tract's an abyss: the cooked and the raw, civilization and the wild, the ghost and the machine. 

If landscapes were hairstyles, PBG would be perfectly coifed, not a follicle askew. The land on which the city is located was at one time owned by a single individual, Chicago insurance swindler magnate John D. MacArthur, and development was done on a wholesale, mercantile basis--much of the construction at the hand of the thuggish Dan Catalfumo. The result is a capitalist version of a centrally planned economy: a finely manicured, synthetic environment geared towards conspicuous consumption and luxurious leisure.

The Briger Tract, on the other hand, while not virgin, is relatively unspoiled, a mix of hardwood forest, fresh water marshes and prairie, home to threatened or endangered species like the gopher tortoise, snowy egret and hand fern. It straddles I-95 north of PBG, almost 700 acres of land, 70 of them county-owned, the rest in private hands.

The city's plans for Briger are tied to the local establishment's Ahab-like quest for the White Whale of bioscience dollars, the idea that public investment in projects like the Scripps Research Institute will ultimately bring a flood of money and jobs to the area. Instead of wildlife, city leaders see about 5 million square feet of biotech and office space on part of the land, thousands of homes, a 300-room hotel, and assorted retail space on the rest.

Protests against development on Briger have continued since the project was first floated more than two years ago, and have included tree-sits and arrests. Those actions have been organized by Everglades Earth First!, a local offshoot of the international, radical environmental activist group Earth First!, whose journal operates out of Lake Worth.

In an open letter last week to the PBG Women's Club, EEF wrote:

We ask that you distance yourself and host your own event celebrating Arbor Day (which we would be more than happy to help out with, including the donation of trees) and that you take the steps to make the public aware that what you are hosting is not a city of Palm Beach Gardens event. Failure to do so on the part of your organization will force us to expose your complicity in the destruction of the Briger Forest.
On Facebook, EEF called the Arbor Day celebration a "sick joke" and promised that its "Sad Clown Brigade will be at the park to crash the sinister joker's planned charade."

In a phone conversation with New Times, Women's Club president Ronnie Sands was indignant, charging the enviros with "scapegoating" her group.

"We've hosted Arbor Day for seventeen years, started it ourselves," she said. "The city was never the main people, only been part of it for the last two years." The protesters, she said, "are using us to pick on the city, associating us with them and a property we're not involved with. This is the first I've ever heard of Briger."

Protest organizers told us they're committed to non-violent action. "We're going about this very carefully," one said. "There's going to be a lot of kids there so it's a fine line. There will be a skit, with clowns, and we want to make sure it's not traumatic."

With all the very public, advance notice of the protest, there's certain to be a police presence at the tree-planting. Historically, local law enforcement have been wisely restrained in handling actions of this sort, generally respecting First Amendment rights. When arrests have been made, they've been done with minimal force. We expect the same today.

Update: 6:09 pm

 No clowns, said the police.

The enviros report they were shut out of the Arbor Day celebration, greeted by a line of police who warned they would be arrested if they in any way disrupted the Women's Club and city officials' program. 

Discretion being the better part of valor, the Sad Clown Brigade went mime.  Mute protest, they call it.

In the protesters' opinion, city officials were the jokers. "They dedicated to the park a lonely single tree that is not native to this area," an EEF press release read. "The ylang ylang tree does have its value of course, as one speaker thought it utterly important to mention, as a key ingredient in Chanel #5 perfume." 

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

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