This forest off Old Cutler is a hidden green gem. A big grant will help it shine

This forest off Old Cutler is a hidden green gem. A big grant will help it shine

MAY 09, 2024 5:30 AM
Miami Herald Staff Writer

Every year thousands of Girl Scouts camp out in a forest off Old Cutler Road, snacking on s’mores and spying stars in the night sky. It’s a hidden green gem, 11 acres of prime Coral Gables real estate surrounded by million-dollar mansions, that somehow has managed to survive the relentless pressure of development.

But Camp Mahachee — purchased by the Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida in 1945 with only $3,337 from, of course, cookie sales — has been under another kind of siege. Over the decades, swathes of the campsite have been engulfed by invasive plants that run wild and suffocate the native hardwood hammock. Just a few years ago, you couldn’t even walk in the front entrance. Sewer vines are the campsite’s biggest villain, ensnaring natives and sucking nutrients out of the land.

For the first time, the federal government is stepping in to fight the invaders and help create a camp that will be more resilient to climate change with a $450,000 grant — the largest check to date to help restore and protect the ground. But scout leaders say the money is really going to teaching girls to get their hands dirty while learning to become better stewards of the nature in their own backyards “For some of our girls its the only place they’re able to wander freely after dark and experience the outdoors,” said Chelsea Wilkerson, CEO, Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida. “We know that these are the generation of girls right now that must solve the climate crisis, and getting them outdoors is the key way we engage them in their role as conservationists.”

The money, part of a spending bill passed by Congress this year, was rewarded as part of a grant applied for in partnership with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and sponsored by U.S. Rep Maria Elvira Salazar, a Miami Republican. Scout leaders say it will go a long way toward reversing three-quarters of a century’s decline in native hardwood hammocks on their property.

When the year is complete, seven acres of the property should be restored. One goal of restoration is make the forest more climate resilient.

The native trees, Wilkerson said, not only will have roots strong enough to withstand Miami’s windy, rainy environment but also will help buffer the surrounding area from extreme heat. Camp Mahachee, which is located right next to West Matheson Park, is on average 14 degrees cooler than other parts of the county on any given day.

When the property was purchased 75 years ago, there was no residential development and the Scouts plan to keep the property for at least another eight decades, Wilkerson said.

Two years ago, the Girl Scouts started crowd-funding to restore the property’s front acre with the help of community partnerships with Miami-Dade County, the Coral Gables Garden Club, and the Coral Gables Community Foundation. That job alone cost $135,000. It took a herbicide treatment and four follow-up treatments to clear the way for about 1,100 native trees Girl Scouts planted a year and a half ago.

Just last weekend, the Girl Scouts planted 500 more trees at the campsite. Those weren’t bought with federal dollars yet but more will be brought in and planted after the rainy season. “Since girls have done their planting they have come back to see where their trees are in the front acre,” Wilkerson said. “The girls planted these six-inch, eight-inch trees, that are now five, six feet tall in just a year and a half.” It’s a slow process, but they’ve already seen some of the pay off since planting natives. Even the native butterflies are coming back. “It’s really a full circle moment,” Wilkerson said. “In 1945, they had a vision of what girls needed to get outdoors. And now this is our opportunity to make sure our legacy lives on in future generations.”

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.