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Pine rocklands grow on the coastal Miami Rock Ridge, a limestone rock outcropping that extends south and west from North Miami Beach to Long Pine Key in Everglades National Park. Over 225 types of native plants occur here and more than 20% of the plant species are found here and nowhere else in the world. Five of these plant species are federally listed as threatened or endangered.
The dominant slash pines tower above a savanna like understory of saw palmettos, beauty berries, willow bustic, locust berries, broom grasses and silver palms. A rich diversity of small herbaceous plants such as the ant pollinated deltoid spurge, the purple flowered milk pea, and the tiny yellow-green small’s milkwork are found nowhere else in the world.
Wildlife such as the rare Florida panther use the understory as camouflage in areas such as Everglades National Park, and red-shoulder hawks rest on dead slash pine stubs as they hunt pygmy rattles. Atala butterflies feed on native coontie as palm warblers flit between branches in search of insects.
A disappearing habitat
Pine Rocklands occur only in South Florida, the Florida Keys, and some islands of the Bahamas. These pinelands, interspersed with hardwood hammocks, once covered 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County. By the time the city of Miami celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1996, only 2% of the pine forest remained within the urbanized areas of the County and outside of the protective border of Everglades National Park.
The rest of the forest has been broken into fragments. From the air, the pinelands appear scattered across Miami-Dade's industrial, residential, and agricultural landscape, looking less like a forest than like islands of trees in a sea of urbanization.
A unique plant community, Rockridge pinelands have been officially designated as a globally imperiled habitat.
Pine Rocklands - Born From Fire (1.7 MB)
Pine rocklands themselves are actually an endangered habitat. This particular type of habitat is found only in South Florida.
Typical features common to pine rocklands are; very little soil substrate, limestone ground, and frequent fire occurrence. The rocky ground has produced plants and animals that have adapted to very little soil.
Plants here grow very slowly and usually develop complex root structures or other specialized means for absorbing nutrients. An important feature of a healthy pine rockland is the periodic need for fire.
Fire plays a vital role in many natural ecosystems, but it plays an even more significant one for pine rocklands. Pine rockland species have adapted to periodic fires, and many species in this type of ecosystem are actually dependent on fire for their survival.
These fires occur early in the wet season and are fed by fine fuels such as pine needles and grasses. Fire helps the pine rocklands by aiding seed germination and reducing the number of exotic plant species.
The ashes are recycled back into the earth and provide nutrients for the plants.
To keep these areas healthy, prescribed fires -- purposely-set, supervised fires -- are set on a three to five year cycle by forest managers. Community education and support for prescribed burning is necessary in areas where pine rocklands are in close proximity to residential neighborhoods.
Threats and conservation
Pine rocklands plants adapted over thousands of years to seasonal wildfires and fire suppression is a major threat. Other serious pressures include land conversion for urban development and agriculture and invasion of exotic plants.
Concerned about the continuing loss of their irreplaceable pinelands and other natural areas, Dade County voters approved a two-year property tax increase in 1990 to acquire, protect, and manage environmentally endangered lands.
Miami-Dade County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program has been in the rather unusual business of buying pineland and other natural areas from willing sellers to preserve our natural heritage and protect these sites from development. Once a natural area is acquired, the EEL Program funds land management to maintain and protect the special South Florida habitats contained within EEL preserves.
Lands are selected for EEL acquisition on the basis of their biological health and viability, their vulnerability and their manageability. Since the program’s inception, more than 1,500 acres of pineland have become EEL preserves and are protected.
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