Saw Palemetto Berry Harvest Update, April 2022

As you may know, saw palmetto berries can fetch a good price from manufacturers of nutritional supplements. In the summer of 2021, the Lee County Parks and Recreation Department decided to harvest a certain percentage of the saw palmetto berries on the Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve for profit.

They explained this change in the management of our preserves was an experiment that would save the County money. Saw palmetto berries are typically harvested by individuals or companies who obtain permits to do so, or illegally, by those who for various reasons don’t apply for permits.

The County tries to monitor the preserves to prevent illegal harvesting, but they say they can’t afford to have staff there 24-7 during berry season. So, their thinking goes, if they harvest some percentage of the berries and sell them for profit, they could get to the berries before the illegal pickers do, and at the same time, earn money for the County.

However, it’s been clear to us at the GPICA that a for-profit operation is incompatible with the purpose of a preserve and that the berries are an essential food for wildlife, particularly protected gopher tortoises. When some of our Board members walked the preserve shortly after the County harvest, we found almost no berries left there at all.

The GPICA raised several concerns about county harvesting with Director of Lee County Parks and Recreation Jesse Lavender and with members of the Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC), the group that oversees and advises the county about issues relating to the 20/20 preserves. We were told by Mr. Lavender that a study was being done to gauge the effect of the county’s harvest on wildlife. But we have not seen that study. And for months, there was no CLASAC meeting, apparently for lack of business.

During a March meeting with Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane, the GPICA Board made several requests:

  1. Pine Islanders are provided with updates and information related to the management of the eight 20/20 preserves located on the Island. Please note that the GPICA is happy to help facilitate information sharing with our residents and will continue to welcome county staff updates during our meetings and will also be willing to share information via our email mailing list.
  2. Islanders be provided with advance opportunities to comment on significant changes to the management practices related to Island land parcels.
  3. The County provide the promised evaluation made related to saw palmetto berry picking on the Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve.
  4. That an accounting be provided of any income garnered from that harvest and that any future income provided related to the preserves on the Island be used to support the Island preserves.

In response, Commissioner Ruane put the questions to Lee County Parks and Recreation and received the following response:

  • That the department is working with University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to conduct a municipal survey on the issue in the “near future.”
  • That County staff will work with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on using game cameras to “patrol” for berry picking violations and look at other preventative measures.
  • That Lee County Parks will NOT be conducting any future berry-harvesting studies.
  • That Lee County Parks staff will provide a report to the Lee County Commission following the IFAS study.

Previously, Mr. Lavender relayed to the GPICA board via email that $15,696.71 in revenue was collected during the Flatwoods Preserve harvest and that “the revenue and all preserve management expenses and revenues are managed through the county’s general fund.”

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