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Walking for a greener South Florida.

Miami-Dade County residents rally to repair the ravages of Hurricane Andrew.

ALEIDA SOCARRAS was wet. The rain had been steady, and her clothes and shoes were soggy. The coworkers she had convinced to take this Saturday walk in the rain were teasing her about not bothering to show up for work on Monday. She was having a great time.

If Hurricane Andrew has a positive legacy, it's the enormous potential it is creating for a greener south Florida. If you doubt that, just ask Socarras and the 1,500 other residents of the Miami-Dade County area who took a symbolic four-mile trek April 23 in support of tree planting. The rain dampened neither the crowd's enthusiasm nor the results of the first-ever Global ReLeaf Walk for Trees, organized by AMERICAN FORESTS and sponsored by a host of local businesses and organizations. One result was the raising of more than $50,000 for local tree-planting projects.

Socarras said later she was walking on behalf of her employer, Peoples Gas Systems; the Leadership Miami Group of The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce; and her son, who belongs to an environmental club at school. As for her coworkers, who told her afterward they preferred a rainy walk to a hot, sunny one, she said with a laugh, "I have a new appreciation for all of them."

The walk kicked off with a rally that featured environmental cheers, strolling costumed characters, a large "earth ball," and a proclamation that Saturday was officially recognized as Global ReLeaf Walk for Trees Day in Dade County. Storm clouds gathered along with the walkers but failed to spoil a mood that was part community picnic and part environmental rally, with a little circus rolled in. Participants came armed with umbrellas, signs, and message T-shirts ("The earth needs all the friends it can get," said one), and proceeded to walk, run, or roller-blade the route. Some came with little ones firmly in hand, in strollers, or in backpack carriers.

Janet Perales of the Friends of Metrozoo was preparing to man a water station and cautiously eyeing the darkening sky. "Just the mere fact that they're trying to get the community involved is fantastic," she said. "Getting young kids involved sends out a positive message to the community here."

The presence of so many students made it clear that the area's young people are not going to sit idly by and wait to inherit the Earth. As the crowd shouted its encouragement, students got the walk rolling--literally--by navigating a six-foot globe down a set of steps toward the starting point. There they were joined by banner-toting Global ReLeaf student cochairs Samantha Ibarguen and Meghan Hauptli.

Lorraine Brill walked briskly through what became a warm and steady spring rain--participating, she said, at her daughter's urging. To her, trees mean "oxygen, beauty . . . just about everything."

The $50,000 raised that day and subsequent contributions will go to plant trees in Cool Communities demonstration sites at Homestead Habitat for Humanity's new ecological community and in the neighborhood of Richmond Heights. Cool Communities is an AMERICAN FORESTS/Department of Energy project aimed at reducing energy use through strategic tree planting and the lightening of surface colors. It is one of the projects in the Clinton Administration's Climate Change Action Plan.

Some of the Walk money will go to support the Tamiami Pine Preserve, part of Dade County's 4,400 acres of pine rockland. Andrew killed more than 90 percent of the area's mature slash pine; what was left has been devastated by severe outbreaks of pine bark beetles and pine reproductive weevils. Lead sponsor AT&T announced at the walk that it will contribute to the restoration of the Tamiami Pine Preserve by planting 500 trees there.

Jim Marshall, president of the Richmond Heights Homeowners Association, said his community is excited about being part of Cool Communities and bringing nature back into their area. "We lost so many trees," he said.

Nicholas Mau is only 9, but he gathered 14 pledges and spoke admiringly of a friend who collected 31. Trees "give off air. They shade. They give fruit and food, and they're nice to climb in," he said.

The weather was blamed for lowering the expected turnout of walkers, but those that came remained upbeat. Walkers chatted about kids, school, and families--rather than the weather--as they strode past well-treed homes in shades of peach and tan.

John Upman brought his son Brian, 13, along on the walk. Upman, horticulturist for Dade County Parks, admitted he's trying to steer his son in the direction of an environmental career, although a grinning Brian did not as yet appear convinced.

The Upmans moved back into their home only a few weeks before the walk. Away when the hurricane hit, Upman and his family returned to find all the landmark trees gone and the neighborhood hard to recognize. For South Dade now, he said, the biggest problem is people not knowing enough about the science of trees and planting and pruning. The devastation is so widespread that residents have left "terrible specimens" of trees that will become hazards in a couple of years because "people are just so glad to have something green."

Aleida Socarras said a lot of their house damage came from falling trees, and her husband initially wanted to replace them all with shrubs. But they're learning the best ways to plant and maintain their trees, something they didn't think about before.

Tanicia Daley and Armenthis Lester walked together under an umbrella. The Palmetto Senior High School National Honor Society members said their group had raised $2,000 for the walk, an Honor Society service project. Daley, who lives in the Richmond Heights area, said that with the amount of environmental degradation going on today, it's important for people to know the benefits of trees.

The purpose of the Walk was to educate as well as fund, and it featured tree identifications and an informative trip along a wooded trail leading to Matheson Hammock Park. Numbered stations along the trail highlighted local ecology such as limestone rock, left from when south Florida was covered by water thousands of years ago, and overgrowth by non-natives such as Jasmine vine, a result of hurricane destruction that let more light into the hammock. The struggle between native species and invasive exotics was highlighted by an area along the trail in which plant species were tagged with colored ribbons to show how natives are being pushed out. The literature provided to walkers explained that exotics do not have to contend with local natural controls--bugs and disease--that keep natives in check.

Many of the soggy walkers opted to bypass the food, music, and exhibits in the park and headed for the free buses back to the MetroRail station. But those who stayed enjoyed a menu prepared by Miami's Hard Rock Cafe. Employee volunteers staffed the food tent, and executive chef Yves Ambroise said the money would go to feed the homeless. The hurricane "made people more appreciative of what they have," he said.

That thought was echoed by Texaco's Sari Jayne Koshetz. New to the area, she's impressed by how environmentally aware the people of south Florida are. "It's important for children to learn at this age to appreciate the environment," said Koshetz, manager of public and government affairs for Texaco's Latin America/West Africa division. "People here don't take trees for granted anymore."

Two orange-vest-clad rescue dogs, members of Metro Dade's Fire and Rescue Squad, were among those taking part in the festival. Off-duty, they walked to show their own personal attraction for trees. Lt. Joe Beale pointed to the male member of the canine team and joked, "He needs trees."

In a more serious tone, Beale said events like the Walk are important. "They bring a little more awareness of the necessity of taking care of the urban landscape," he said, adding he'd like to see more attention paid to trees than to some other amenities.

The exhibits offered information on everything from Everglades protection projects to native plants and the work of Habitat for Humanity. A woman from Parrot Jungle, a local attraction, strolled the crowd with a living avian shoulderpiece. While the adults ate and perused the exhibits, the younger crowd took advantage of the globe resting in the field. As the Cars' "Here She Comes Again" wafted from radio station WSHE's truck, the young people took turns racing across the field with it, occasionally rolling over a companion in their enthusiasm.

Juan Sweeting, a teacher at Campbell Drive Elementary School in Homestead, stood with a group of walkers from his school. He spoke proudly of a tree-planting project that has fourth- and fifth-graders taking care of trees. The hurricane made Campbell Drive Elementary think twice about the trees it had taken for granted around the school.

"I think people realized the importance of trees that Friday. When they went home, there were beautiful trees. When they came back to look on Monday, everything was gone," he said.

AMERICAN FORESTS Executive Vice President Neil Sampson thanked those who stuck around for a brief awards ceremony. "As a result of your efforts, we raised more than $50,000 today for tree planting in south Florida," Sampson said. "The earth's environment is not a one-day event, not a Saturday in the park. Everything we do matters. The people of South Miami and Dade are showing that.

"I hope we can keep this momentum going. We can enter the next century with a much better world because of your efforts ."

Among the awards presented, Barry Johnson of lead sponsor AT&T presented a Living Classroom, including a group of Famous & Historic Trees and educational materials, to Whispering Pines Elementary School. (For more on Living Classrooms, see "The Living Classrooms Idea" in the March/April issue.)
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Forests
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Robbins, Michelle
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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