Invasion of the Brazilian Pepper

By Amie Dunn, BASF

The mention of John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) or Cape Canaveral Air Force Base-jointly known as the Cape Canaveral Spaceport-is likely to conjure similar images in the minds of most: spacecraft, launch pads, F-16s and other high-tech scientific marvels. After all, the Cocoa Beach, Fla., area is best known for 50-plus years of advances in space travel.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is located along the Atlantic Ocean where pelicans can often be seen flying over the cool waters.
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However, within the confines of the Kennedy Space Center is one of Florida’s most protected and cherished wildlife preserves: the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1963 and owned by NASA, the refuge covers 140,000 acres of the space center and provides habitat for more than 500 species of wildlife, including several endangered plants and animals. An estimated 2,500 Florida scrub jays can be found on the refuge in addition to 10 active bald eagle nests, several osprey nests, wading bird rookeries and 400 manatees, according to government sources. Additionally, the refuge caters to visitors with hiking trails, a seven-mile wildlife drive, manatee viewing area, several boat launch areas, fishing, canoeing and wildlife observation areas.

Recently, the refuge’s biodiversity and healthy ecosystem have been threatened by invasive weeds such as Brazilian pepper tree, which dominate landscapes and steal nutrients, light and growing space from native plants. Brazilian pepper has been especially problematic for Florida Power & Light (FPL), which owns and manages electric transmission lines that cross areas of the refuge. The tree grows thick and spreads quickly, reaching heights that could interfere with power line performance and complicating access to right-of-ways (ROWs) for FPL workers.

Luckily, those involved in maintaining the wildlife preserve and controlling invasive species have tools, including selective low-volume herbicides, that work to restore native vegetation in sensitive and threatened habitats.

Power Solutions

Dan Marsh, a senior utility arborist for FPL, manages 2,600 miles of transmission lines in north-central and north Florida, and recently worked on a stretch of line within the Kennedy Space Center.

“We need to keep a 110-foot-wide ROW clear under the transmission lines. Brazilian pepper has made that tremendously difficult,” Marsh said. “Once it starts growing in an area, Brazilian pepper out-competes native vegetation and becomes overwhelming. Under electric transmission lines, it restricts access and can cause power line interruptions if allowed to grow tall enough to get into the conductors.”

After some research, Marsh decided to use herbicides to clear the ROW. The herbicides he chose were selective, meaning they only target invasive species without affecting animals, insects, birds or aquatic life. FPL started in 2003 and has had great success in removing invasive species and restoring habitat in and around the refuge.

To control the spread of Brazilian pepper in the refuge, Marsh decided to try broadcast foliage herbicide applications, using products labeled for this particular difficult species. He chose two products (Arsenal herbicide and Habitat herbicide from BASF Professional Vegetation Management) because they are designed to help control invasive species and restore native vegetation in sensitive and threatened wildlife habitats, such as the refuge.

In 2003, Clear Waters Inc. managed the project and applied herbicides within the refuge for FPL. Every decision was made knowing that the goal was to control as much of the invasive species as possible while limiting the amount of mechanical and chemical impact to the land. Releasing native vegetation and allowing it to re-establish in the treated areas were also important.

Because the area was thick with 15- to 25-foot-high Brazilian pepper, Clear Waters used a special mowing device to cut a path through the middle of the ROW, said Trace Wolfe, vice president of Clear Waters. The mowing machine (made by GyroTrac) exerts only about three pounds of ground pressure, which helps limit the impact of mowing in sensitive areas.

“It doesn’t leave much, if any, of a footprint in the soil,” Marsh said. “It allowed the applicators to get through the refuge ROW areas without disturbing its many important historical sites, including Indian burial grounds.”

Protecting desirable vegetation under and around the power lines, such as mangrove trees, was also important. Once much more prevalent, mangrove trees act as a unique habitat for many creatures, including birds, mammals and, in aquatic areas, fish. The trees also support more effective nesting and breeding by offering protection for young birds and fish.

“We used Arsenal with a low-volume application technique in the non-wetland areas of the refuge. It allowed us to specifically target the invasive species we wanted to control,” Wolfe said. “In the aquatic and shoreline areas, we used Habitat. [The products] allow for the use of less active ingredient per acre than other herbicide treatments.”

The first season, Clear Waters made herbicide applications with a combination of amphibious track equipment, pickup trucks and backpack sprayers. But the following year, applicators were able to use all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks to touch up and apply spot treatments. “It looks great now,” Wolfe said. “It will be a while before we have to come back.”

The new strategy far outperformed past vegetation management techniques, such as mowing.

“Mowing is only a short-term option for controlling Brazilian pepper,” Marsh said, “and not a good option at that. A year after mowing, you can have four feet of regeneration with twice the density. Other options, such as hand-cutting or basal bark herbicide treatments, are too labor-intensive and expensive. Fortunately, low-volume broadcast applications give us the long-term control we’re looking for.”

It Is Rocket Science

According to Glenn Willis, an entomologist in charge of pest control at the Kennedy Space Center, herbicides are used at a number of other sites at the center to control unwanted vegetation.

“We utilize Arsenal in tank mixes for bareground areas,” said Willis, who works for Yang Enterprises, a subcontractor through Space Gateway Support (SGS), the city manager for the spaceport. “We have fence lines, fuel lines, the crawler track, launch pads and many other areas that need to remain free of brush and/or weeds for safety reasons.”

For example, Willis uses herbicides to maintain bareground gravel around lightning sensing devices. “Lightning sensors are very important at KSC,” he said. “Storms can come in quickly and create safety hazards, especially around the fueling areas.”

NASA escape area with launch pad in background.
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The sensors are designed to detect when conditions are ripe for lightning. If they signal a lightning warning, NASA managers can stop fueling operations immediately. But, if the lightning sensors are even partially covered by vegetation, they can’t operate effectively and safety is compromised.

Willis also used the herbicide at the site of a wind profiler, which essentially tracks wind patterns by sending radio waves into the sky. Soil in and around the wind profiler must remain moist to get a good signal. But the moisture also helps unwanted vegetation grow, disrupting the profiler. “Arsenal worked like a charm and we’ve been using it ever since,” said Willis.

KSC, Cape Canaveral Air Force Base and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are a symbol of modern technology and pristine wildlife habitat. Consequently, those responsible for vegetation management on the land seek the best management strategies and focus on protecting the precious native habitat.

Dunn is communications manager for BASF ProVM. For more information the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, please visit

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