“Citizen scientists” volunteer to restore Virginia Key near Miami

Just a few months ago, the north point of Virginia Key off downtown Miami was covered by 40 feet of dredge material and a thick canopy of invasive plants.

Today, the 1,000-acre barrier island sports a much cleaner look: A sandy, gently sloping dune partly covered in a green blanket of about 35,000 young sea oats and other dune plants. (Watch a drone aerial survey of the site here.)

The transformation hasn’t been easy, and it’s not finished. Restoring the island’s northern dune to a more natural state is only the first phase. The project’s second phase focuses on restoring a hardwood forest and isolated freshwater wetland near the dune, along with the creation of a multi-use nature trail with interpretive signage.

The work being done at the northern tip of Virginia Key represents a collaborative effort by several agencies and organizations, including the city of Miami, Miami-Dade County and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, which has enlisted its army of volunteer “citizen scientists” to tackle the sweaty work of removing invasive vegetation and planting native species.

The multi-year project is funded by a $99,524 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) through NFWF’s partnerships with Wells Fargo, FedEx and EPA. The project also will receive more than $250,000 in local matching contributions. 

A signature feature of the innovative project is the museum’s use of a unique portfolio of social media, blogs, science exhibits and iconic eco-art installations to empower conservation-minded residents to volunteer to help restore a variety of urban coastal habitats.

Fernando Bretos, curator of ecology and field conservation for the museum, has marshaled the group’s Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE) volunteers for the Virginia Key project.

The project started last fall, when volunteers began removing invasive plants. Work picked up speed in early spring when Miami-Dade county workers removed larger non-native pine trees and performed other major site preparations, he said.

Plantings of native species began in May, and continued with two planting sessions per month through the end of South Florida’s rainy season this month.

All told, more than 900 volunteers have donated about 4,000 hours so far, Bretos said. He expects many of the volunteers will stick with the project well into the future.

“Getting people out there involved in restoration and planting is the best education there is,” he said. “We realized that just having people planting in the field is great, but we’ve learned that they want to do more. They really become citizen scientists when they come back and help monitor the site.”

Bretos said the project has drawn a “nice diversity of volunteers,” with about a third coming from local schools, another third from conservation and community groups, and the remaining third from the general population of Miami.

“This has been a great example of how a collective effort can really transform an area for the better,” Bretos said. “People can’t believe it’s the same place.

“And it’s been really touching. As scientists, we hammer people over the head about environmental degradation, but here, they can come out and see that they are creating real change, and that they’re leaving a lasting legacy.”

About NFWF

Established by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) sustains, restores and enhances the nation's fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 4,000 organizations and committed more than $2.3 billion to conservation projects. Learn more at www.nfwf.org.


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