Miami's Virginia Key transforms from desolate acreage to tropical wilderness

  • Article by: MONICA DISARE , Miami Herald
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 12:00 PM

Historic Virginia Key, once designated as the only beach for blacks, gets a worthy makeover.

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Josh Mahoney, Miami-Dade County environmental resources project supervisor, with sea oats on the dunes of Virginia Key.

Photo: Walter Michot • Miami Herald,

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Just seven years ago, a 17-acre raised section of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park was as desolate as a moonscape, but now it brims with native plants and wildlife.

Volunteer Gary Hunt walked the overgrown path, pointing out hundreds of new trees and recalling the owls and warblers he has spotted in the park.

“This shows you very profoundly what volunteer effort can do,” Hunt said.

Volunteers have helped transform Virginia Key into a destination for wildlife and locals alike, during many hot, mosquito-ridden weekends of planting trees and maintaining park grounds.

“We’re trying to position Virginia Key as the City of Miami Central Park,” said Guy Forchion, executive director of Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

Tourism Cares, a Massachusetts-based volunteer group of travel professionals, recently brought 325 people to Virginia Key. They planted nearly 800 trees within the 17 acres and 11,000 sea oats at the North Point, an area on the tip of the island. The group also cleaned debris from Miami Marine Stadium, a once-popular destination on Virginia Key for concerts and power boating.

Tourism Cares’ planting marked a milestone in the ongoing restoration project: the end of major replanting on the neglected property.

“I call this the icing on the cake,” Forchion said. “This is the cherry on top.”

But for volunteers, there is no time to rest. They will continue to clear the paths, maintain trees and eradicate pesky invasive species.

Despite the humidity and the bugs, volunteers from groups such as Tourism Cares and TREEmendous Miami, a group dedicated to planting trees across the city, continue to frequent the muggy area because they feel strongly about the environmental impact the plants will have.

During hurricanes and severe weather, these plants help protect the mainland from high winds, said Gloria Antia, executive director for Citizens for a Better South Florida, another group working to restore the island. She added that the plants will make the beach itself more storm-resistant.

Virginia Key is also an important pit stop for migratory birds. Although condominiums on the coast of Florida have snagged much of the prime real estate for birds, Virginia Key remains an important feeding ground for birds, Hunt said. Birds that frequent the island include vireos, warblers and falcons.

Although the raised area on Historic Virginia Key Beach, sometimes called a “hammock” in the South, has been the focus of restoration efforts, other parts of the island are also receiving a face-lift.

Heavy construction equipment is at work on the North Point, clearing the way for new sea oats and providing sea turtles with a place to lay their eggs. Several sea turtle nests, marked by signs, have cropped up since the restoration started.

On the shores of Biscayne Bay, the Miami Marine Stadium probably is cleaner now than it has been since it closed in 1992, Forchion said. Carolyn Cauceglia, who is on the board of directors of Tourism Cares, said she remembers attending concerts there years ago, when stars including the Beach Boys drew boaters to the bay as the sounds of surf and sand wafted over the water.

The stadium has been closed since Hurricane Andrew, but if restoration efforts are successful, it may one day be functional again. While Forchion wants to turn Virginia Key into Miami’s Central Park, Cauceglia said she hopes the Miami Marine Stadium will become the city’s Sydney Opera House.

“To me it’s a hidden jewel on Biscayne Bay,” she said.

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