COMMENTARY: A Ficus Falls in Florida

Green Inspiration Grows from Hurricane Debris

North Fork Elementary School Marine Science Magnet students and staff, along with The Kids Ecology Corps and others, planting red mangroves.
© Photos: Broward County Public Schools

It was late October, 2005. Hurricane Wilma had just raced across South Florida.

Quiet had returned to Pompano Beach, and Bob Parks set out for the supermarket. But Parks, a long-standing member of the Broward County School Board, was dumbfounded to see a huge ficus tree stretched entirely across Harbor Drive.

"It had to be 60 feet," Parks recalls.

Detouring to a side street, Parks left behind the ficus—but not his curiosity.

Wilma had been weakening when it reached Broward. It first attacked Florida's Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm, then marched across the Everglades. It reached the Atlantic Coast as a Category 2. Parks wondered: How could Wilma snatch such a big tree completely out of the ground and fling it across a boulevard?

Michael Garretson, the school system's facilities chief, had an answer. Trees native to Florida have evolved through many millennia of hurricanes; they have sufficient roots to hold their ground, he told Parks. But the ficus is a non-native invader.

For Parks, this was a pivotal revelation. For Broward County Public Schools, it was the first step in a program of environmental awareness that has made the school system—the nation's sixth largest—one of the greenest, too.

Given his ficus insight, Parks soon won a 9-0 School Board vote that only Florida-native foliage could be planted on Broward's 283 campuses. Non-native trees are being replaced. That led to other environmental turnarounds.

"All over the district, we had kids and teachers doing good things for the environment," Parks says. "But it was piecemeal."

Native red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) take hold along

The solution: Broward's Environmental Strategic Plan, adopted last June.

"It was a blueprint to, 1) Make sure everybody was on the same page, and 2) Make sure it was important to all of us," Parks says.

Parks wanted to save the planet, and save money. He wanted the school system to teach children environmental values, and to demonstrate those values through daily operations.

Environmental stewardship became one of the system's seven critical goals, on par with student achievement, employee excellence and safety.

Now Broward is installing waterless urinals, low-flow toilets and solar parking lights. It's recycling everything from cardboard to bus parts. A new elementary school will have a photovoltaic solar roof.

Students are planting Florida-native butterfly gardens, riverfront mangroves and oceanfront sea grapes. They're maintaining preserves for burrowing owls and gopher tortoises.

Meanwhile, the school system reduced its electrical consumption in the fall term of 2008 by 7% over the same months the year before, saving $23,000. Broward's paper recycling program is saving some $750,000 a year in avoided disposal costs, and the equivalent of 33,000 trees.

"It's not a top-down initiative," says Parks. "The push is really coming from students and teachers."

A former high school teacher and native of Key West, Parks was declared the school system's environmentalist of the month in the June newsletter of the school system's science department. The newsletter called Parks “a bonafide tree hugger.”

"I see this district being a leader in implementation of green initiatives," Parks says. "We believe that this is important for the future of our kids, and the future of this planet."

GARY S. HINES is the environmental resources manager in the Facilities and Construction Management Department of the Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools.