Bringing Camp Mahachee Back to Life

A Community Effort to Restore a Native Hammock

Surrounded by two of the city’s lushest landscapes — Matheson Hammock Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden — Camp Mahachee is a natural area that you could easily miss. That is, unless you’re a Girl Scout.

Purchased in 1945 with $3,337 in cookie sales revenue, the property has served Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida for 75 years (since 1948), giving young girls from Miami-Dade and Monroe counties a place to connect with each other and nature. This 11.5-acre property, spreading west from Old Cutler Road, has seen decades of campfires and adventures. But throughout the years, parts of it have fallen into disrepair due to one culprit: invasive species.

“Because of the condition it was in, a large part of the camp was completely unusable,” says Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida CEO Chelsea Wilkerson. “That entire front area was blanketed in invasive vines.”

Camp Mahachee Invasive Species

An overgrown mess in the front area of Camp Mahachee, completely covered in invasive vines, prior to restoration.

Now, the community has come to the rescue. Through a grassroots fundraising effort jumpstarted by the Coral Gables Garden Club, more than $150,000 was raised from the Club, the Coral Gables Community Foundation, Citizens for a Better South Florida, the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, and the Arbor Day Foundation (to name a few). The result: 1.5 acres of vines and collapsed forest dating back to Hurricane Andrew were hand removed, treated, and replaced with 1,400 planted native hardwood trees last fall.

The front area of Camp Mahachee currently, with the property road that leads to the lodging area (left) and a part of the pollinator garden with juvenile trees (right).

The immensity of this environmental feat becomes apparent if you walk through Camp Mahachee. We were given a tour by Miami-Dade County environmental scientist James Duncan, who joined last year’s restoration effort of the property while working on a pilot project next door at West Matheson Hammock.

“The county had done a big cleanup along the [property] wall, at the southern edge of the Environmentally Endangered Lands preserve,” says Duncan, “but that cleanup is only so good if you keep the invasive plants out from the other side of the wall, too.”

Many of the new trees at Camp Mahachee received a dedication from the Girl Scout who planted it during volunteer events that, on weekends, included a wide range of citizens. Wilkerson highlighted the importance for the organization to involve the girls, teaching them to be stewardesses of the land. “They need to be able to connect with nature in meaningful ways, so that they see their roles as future conservationists,” she says.

Girl Scouts during a community planting event in October 2022 when the restoration project began (left). New trees received a popsicle stick dedication from the Girl Scouts that planted them (right).

The heaviest work, like digging into the solid rock and removing invasive trees, was done by contractors. “That’s very expensive, very hard work to do, especially when you have a lot of natives mixed in,” Duncan explains. “It’s not your typical contractor. You have to have a qualified expert come in with a team to hand remove everything. The before and after is absolutely incredible.”

As we walked through the growing trees, Duncan pointed out the new saplings. Each tree serves a purpose, from the thorny wild lime that hosts swallowtail caterpillars to the crabwood that hosts the beautiful Florida purple wing butterfly. Both are imperiled species, the latter of which is no longer found in Miami-Dade County. “If we support these kinds of forests, with these kinds of projects, we might be able to bring them back,” says Duncan.

Miami-Dade County environmental scientist James Duncan (left) consulted on the restoration project at Camp Mahachee. 1.5 acres of vines were hand removed and replaced with native hardwood trees (right).

We pointed out the papaya trees, which stood higher compared to the blossoming juvenile trees. They are native to Florida, says Duncan, serving here as a primary succession species — pioneer plants that can grow on rocks and exposed land. After a forest collapses, the papaya trees are supposed to pop up and nurse surrounding smaller trees until they themselves get shaded out. Prior to their comeback after Hurricane Andrew, however, invasive plants short-circuited this native process, preventing the papaya from nursing the canopy back to health. Instead, a giant mat of waist-high vines formed and choked out all other growth.

The goal of the restoration project is to restore the natural ecological process. Glimpses of success are already showing. “One of the cool things about this project is that we are seeing things we never would have seen,” Duncan says — such as a native bird pepper, sprouting from the natural seed bank. He hadn’t seen the shrub in this area of Miami-Dade, just in North Miami.

Papaya trees (left) help nurse the canopy back to health, allowing native plants such as the native bird pepper (right) to sprout from the natural seed bank after restoration.

Duncan also partnered with the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden conservation team to reintroduce rare, endangered ferns to Camp Mahachee. The disappearance of the ferns from this tropical hardwood hammock, Duncan explains, occurred because the hammock is drier than it has historically been. The camp had been watered by a stream that has since been absorbed by the man-made Snapper Creek Canal.

“This had a cascading effect, not just on the wetlands people might think of, but even on a hammock up here, which used to be much cooler and moister than it was after the construction of the canal,” Duncan says. “One of those effects was seeing a lot of our endangered ferns go extinct.”

With the initial phases of the restoration project now complete — which added a pollinator garden and bridging area with coral rock benches — the focus now shifts to maintaining the area and raising funds for another five acres that still need to be restored. Maintenance includes pulling out the stubborn invasive vines that continue to emerge, as well as protecting the new native plants from invasive birds like peacocks that eat them and the larvae nestled into them.

The project included the creation of a bridging area with coral rock benches. Blue cones (bottom right) are placed throughout the garden to protect sprouting native plants from invasive peacocks.

As for funding, the Girl Scouts are continuing to apply for grants and looking for donors. One of the biggest local supporters continues to be the Coral Gables Garden Club, which started the first round of funding with a contribution of over $25,000 and was responsible for the new bridging area.

“There are a lot of Garden Club members that have memories of being a Girl Scout at Camp Mahachee,” says club president Susan Rodriguez. “We have a lot of ladies, even in their ‘80s, who spent time there. The location is so beautiful — it looks like old Florida — and it’s very meaningful to a lot of our members…. We want to continue our relationship with the Girl Scouts. The property still has a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Coral Gable Garden Club president Susan Rodriguez (left) and Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida CEO Chelsea Wilkerson at the camp’s lodge building.

Energized by Camp Mahachee, the Garden Club is now expanding its restoration efforts elsewhere. “We should be restoring native habitats and bringing back [other] natural areas,” Rodriguez says, which is why the organization is already contributing to other county restoration projects led by Duncan.

“We are planting seedlings of native grasses and wildflowers that will be planted out in West Kendall,” says Rodriguez. “We love the fact that we can help. We’ve planted 6,000 seeds… that members have taken home and will be nurturing for the next couple of months.” Next January, the club will also plant 200 native trees at the adjacent West Matheson Hammock, the restoration of which served as a template for Camp Mahachee.

Since last September, the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) has taken down invasive species and planted over 7,000 native trees throughout 15 acres of West Matheson Hammock. The success of this pilot project led to a $5 million grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Miami-Dade County Biscayne Bay Trust to continue restoration efforts throughout the 381-acre preserve.

West Matheson Hammock Restoration

Habitat restoration is ongoing in West Matheson Hammock, which shares the property line with Camp Mahachee.

One of the goals is to fund a full restoration of the entire footprint, diminishing invasive plant coverage to nearly zero. “If you don’t do full restoration, you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars doing spot treatments year after year, treating the seedlings from the area that wasn’t treated,” notes Duncan. Another aspect is to bring back pieces of Snapper Creek through the use of wells, pumps, and about 1.5 miles of irrigation lines.

“Mahachee has always been part of that ecosystem — habitats don’t have boundaries or property lines,” Wilkerson points out. “It’s great to have a neighbor that’s also committed to conservation. It’s nice to lean on each other in our shared commitment to doing the right thing for this habitat.”

As for the Girl Scouts, their return this fall will usher in a new era for Camp Mahachee. From hiking along the pollinator garden, to using cut-down wood from the project to mark out paths, to conducting ceremonies in the new bridging area to honor their achievements, the girls will create everlasting memories in one of the most precious natural landscapes Coral Gables has to offer.

Learn more on how you can support Camp Mahachee by visiting the Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida’s website.