Bioethics professor leads restoration of Miami’s last remaining sandy highland pine forest
MIAMI GARDENS | Every afternoon at St. Thomas University, Father Alfred Cioffi, joined by students, methodically clears out invasive species from Miami-Dade County’s last remaining sandy highland slash pine forest. And as he removes Brazilian pepper trees and other invaders, the associate professor of biology and bioethics hears the quiet cries for “help” and whispers of “thank you” from the canopy’s towering pillars.
Indeed, he is doing God’s work, caring for creation, considering a January BBC report that a tropical forest the size of Denmark disappears yearly. Florida was covered in pines until developers plowed southward, and St. Thomas’ entire 140-acre campus comprised a sandy highland slash pine forest before its establishment in 1961.
When Father Cioffi joined STU 12 years ago, he took arboreal action after learning about the forest’s endangerment. “They are shouting ‘help!’ We have to hear with the intellect, with the mind,” said the priest, donning a white lab coat. “Ultimately this is a spiritual renewal to be able to preserve a species that has been here 10,000 years since the last Ice Age. From the 1920s to get what is down from 99 percent to 1 percent, it’s an ethical responsibility to save it.”
Father Cioffi cites Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” the church’s first ever encyclical on the environment, named after a creation canticle by St. Francis of Assisi. The priest, 68, has lectured on “Laudato Si” and St. Thomas has sponsored two international conferences on climate, nature and society.
“Because Francis of Assisi was in touch with nature and saw the creator in the creature, he respected all of nature, was a lover of plants and animals,” Father Cioffi said. Pope Francis “was inspired by Francis of Assisi because of his love of nature and the ethical responsibility we have to preserve nature.”
On a sunny, fresh winter morning, Father Cioffi supervised general biology students removing Brazilian pepper seeds amid 60–70-foot slash pines and marking with flags new pine seedlings that have sprouted in the ground cover of this second sector of 15 acres under restoration. He quizzed students on monoecious versus dioecious trees and local invasive species, many brought as ornamentals, from iguanas to peacocks to banyan trees. He identified the female pinecone versus the male’s containing pollen, and admired the first sector, cleared three years ago, where seven adult pines thrive amid native wildlife like purple beautyberries and muscadine.
Once the academic team clears the invasive and exotic species — which in nature occurs through wildfires — pine seedlings can absorb sunlight and water to grow to adults and expand the urban forest. Many seedlings die out naturally as only the fittest genetically reach a full lifespan of around 150 years.
“Over the decades a number of invasive species, plants and animals, have come into the area, and little by little they’ve been growing because they don’t have any natural enemies, so they grow unencumbered” and choke seedlings, Father Cioffi explained. “Once we clear the understory, we allow the seedlings to flourish. We started tagging the seedlings — found over 3,000 just in this sector.”
Freshman Josh Fleurjuste has newfound appreciation for the pines. “I see them when I walk outside but I never really paid attention so it’s nice to pay attention. And I never knew there were pine trees in Florida until I came here,” said the native of Port St. Lucie.
Added classmate Richard Perez, “We took a pine home. We’re watering it every day. It makes me feel I’m a part of nature.”
Nearby, Mateo Aranzazu flagged new seedlings. Two weeks earlier, he had planted 1,000 flags but removed another 1,000. “We’re doing this to know how many baby pines are born and how many die so that we can have a percentage that survive,” said the environmental engineering major from Miami Dade College.
Restoration ecologist Luis Moreno, a master’s degree student in bioethics, said he loves to volunteer “for the greater good of our urban forest,” assisting with plant identification. “We have to try and create a space for naturally occurring plants and the seedbank that has been suppressed on the forest floor for so many years,” Moreno said. “You see the seedlings springing up and it’s amazing.”
Moreno believes the forest restoration has “tremendous potential” to benefit STU and the archdiocese through grants and interdisciplinary research. “It’s right there and it has no protection from the county or the state. It’s literally unmanaged and (Father Cioffi) found an opportunity to teach some environmental stewardship and habitat restoration,” he noted. “In Miami it’s about building up and they don’t see the natural habitat as something we need to coexist with.”
Moreno added that he appreciates the master program’s integral approach to environmental and human bioethics. “As creatures we have a master and everything that surrounds us is part of that creation and I don’t think you can be a true Christian and Catholic Christian without participating and caring for that creation. The natural world is the highest expression. You won’t find beauty greater than the natural beauty,” he said.
The restored habitat is also welcoming back more native creatures. “We also have racoon families, foxes, squirrels of course, native birds, hawks, falcons, cardinals, some of the migratory birds that come through the year and stop over. We have a lot of natural wildlife,” enthused Father Cioffi, noting chirping male cardinals enjoying a Miami layover.
In another nearby cleared area, pines reign alongside sabal palms — featured on the state flag — in front of the business school. Plans call for adding walking paths, picnic tables and flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. “We allow nature to restore itself,” Father Cioffi said. “We’ll get a beautiful area so students, faculty and personnel can have lunch here and enjoy the nature walk.”
The priest outlined plans to poison the strangling fig, or banyan tree, whose roots have enveloped one of the pine trees. “We’ll kill the fig but leave it there because this is the education piece,” he said, adding that Coconut Grove overflows with banyans.
St. Thomas runs along a highland sandy ridge and the campus has some 300 remaining sandy highland adults of at least 1.5 feet diameter. In contrast, South Dade has protected rockland slash pines, which grow spindly atop limestone rock.
STU happens to be sitting right on top of that sandy ridge, many feet deep of sand. This allows the root system of these pines to grow huge, unencumbered, “and that’s why our trees get so huge. That makes them unique,” Father Cioffi said.
The professor himself grew up in New York and relished Central Park’s urban forest. “There are fewer and fewer left in the world. This is a global movement of bringing back the urban forest, not just the manicured lawn but the native ecosystem,” he said. “We can teach our students how to manage urban forests and then go out to other parts of the county and recreate urban forests.”
Father Cioffi now digs with deep satisfaction into his arboreal mission. “When we realized we had the last remaining highland pine forest we said we’ve got to preserve it. It’s an ethical thing. There’s a sense of urgency. If we leave the invasive trees it will destroy the forest,” he continued. “So we’re trying to preserve it for dear life.”
For more information contact Father Cioffi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 786-489-9369.