Scrubbing the Brush

The driver of Volusia County’s new roller chopper makes a pass along the closed Blue Trail of the Lyonia Nature Preserve to restore the scrub habitat for scrub jays.

The top of one of the tall sand pines spread across the Lyonia Nature Preserve shivers, shakes and then slowly falls out of sight before you can see the “monster” that felled it.

The bulldozing roller chopper busting its way through the scrub oak brush levels the sandy landscape to help restore 20 acres of the habitat to its natural height. Volusia County Environmental Specialist Richard Harris said they have to do it before Mother Nature does.

“In a natural world without people, this place would probably have huge sand pines,” Mr. Harris said. “In the summer months, it would have a lightning strike, fire would rip through here. And it would burn everything up and start growing again.”

The 360-acre nature preserve is all scrub habitat and one of the last places you’ll find the threatened Florida scrub jay. The high and dry terrain provides perfect scrub jay and gopher

tortoise habit. Without fire, the scrub oaks get too tall and the fast growing sand pines provide cover for the scrub jays natural predators. But with schools, neighborhoods and a branch of the Volusia County Library right next door to Lyonia Nature Preserve, land management staff have to take matters into their own hands, chopping the scrub oak down to the ground and taking the sand pines out entirely.

“Ideally the percentage for scrub jays, they want 10% open sand. They want no higher than 10-foot oak

trees,” said Mr. Harris, which means chopping the brush to the ground every three to five years.

Staffers scouted for gopher tortoise burrows before bulldozing the brush, but will leave pockets of scrub oaks for the birds while the brush grows back. The neighbors might hear the chopper at work, sounding a lot like clearing land for the latest subdivision or convenience

store, but it’s not. Trails have closed to keep curious hikers safe, but the trails are as popular as ever, even during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They never stopped,” Mr. Harris said. “I’d come out here doing jay watch in June and there’d be people on the trails, running and jogging … So they never stopped coming out. People love those jays, that’s for sure.”

The restoration project will last at least two weeks, but Mr. Harris believed they would get done sooner. And then they’ll move to the next section of the preserve.

“It’s never ending,” he said. “By the time we’re finished doing one … it’s never ending the whole time. It’s a restoration in progress.”

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