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National Perspective | AGRICULTURE

New Front Emerges in Florida's War on Diseased Citrus Trees

Furious residents are fighting a state program that has stripped some properties bare.


MIAMI — At least five property owners have silenced the chain saws by brandishing guns. Two cities are suing the state. Outraged residents packed a weekend rally toting "Citrus Gestapo" signs.

What started out as a war to wipe out a blight stalking Florida's citrus trees has escalated into tense skirmishes between homeowners and state-hired tree cutters who are marching into thousands of backyards.

The wood chips began to fly in south Florida again Wednesday after a two-day moratorium on tree removal prompted by resident complaints. The cutting crews are now being escorted into neighborhoods by 50 forest rangers. The rangers' mission: public relations and pacification.

"People are very upset--that's an understatement," said South Miami Mayor Julio Robaina, who joined the neighboring village of Pinecrest in suing to halt the state Agriculture Department's Citrus Canker Eradication Program. "This has just been handled terrible. Very disorganized. I think people just want proof that their trees are affected before someone comes in and cuts them down."

Indeed, the firestorm of anger touched off by Florida's effort to protect the state's $8.5-billion-a-year citrus industry has spawned calls for a consumer boycott and a political backlash directed at Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Our Gov. Bush, in order to kill a pest in our trees, ordered the killing of our trees," said University of Miami philosophy professor Fred Westphal, who formed a protest group called CADET (Citizens Against Destruction and Eradication of Trees).

The mounting backlash against the canker eradication program gained steam after the mysterious death in Miami last week of Tyson, a 4-year-old boxer. Carolina Sanchez said her dog dropped dead in the backyard as workers were destroying trees next door.

Also, a police officer who responded to her emergency call was overcome by a chemical aroma and spent the night in a hospital.

Tree cutters denied using any chemicals on the stump they were grinding. But with an autopsy on the dog pending, Tyson's death seems to have galvanized opposition to the aggressive style of the state's anti-canker campaign.

"I stood here and watched them take our Ruby Red grapefruit, a Key lime, a Valencia orange and a calamondin," said Coral Gables retiree Walter Jureski, eyes brimming with emotion as he recalled a day last month. "It was heartbreaking. We loved those trees, and they were loaded with fruit."

For his losses, Jureski, 80, like other homeowners, received a $100 voucher to be used in the garden department at Wal-Mart. But even if there wasn't a ban on replanting citrus, he wouldn't do it. Said Jureski: "I couldn't stand to go through that again."

On a Web site calling for a boycott of Florida citrus (, writers rail against the Agriculture Department's "hired goon squads" who "break down your fences, trample your rights and destroy private property."

Under an emergency order by the governor, canker crews do not need an owner's permission to walk onto private property and take out citrus trees. Lushly landscaped yards have been reduced to vacant lots in minutes. "They raped our yard," a caller named Lynn told a Miami radio talk-show host Tuesday. "I'm horrified, appalled, furious. Just livid."

For five years the state's $170-million effort to wipe out canker--an airborne bacterial disease harmless to humans but contagious and destructive to citrus trees--was waged without much fanfare. Crews with chain saws have cut, mulched and burned more than 800,000 trees, from backyards and commercial groves, since the current outbreak began in 1995.

(Larry Hawkins, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Sacramento, said there has never been an outbreak of citrus canker in California.)

The canker wars have exploded into a battle between homeowners and contract workers wielding chain saws in recent weeks after the state cited new scientific evidence to increase by 15 times the zone of contamination. Previously, those trees within a 125-foot radius of an infected tree had to be removed. The radius is now 1,900 feet.

To cover more ground, the state boosted the number of cutting crews at work in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties from 50 to 300. "When you impact more people, you get more people complaining," said Liz Compton, public relations director for the state Department of Agriculture. "And we've made mistakes. With a program this size, it's going to happen."

Poor communication has been one mistake, Compton conceded. At a training session this week, the forest rangers drafted to act as liaisons between homeowners and cutters were told: Expect confrontation. But be polite.

Robaina said he accepts the necessity for the eradication. But many of his constituents do not. On Tuesday night, angry residents rejected a proposed settlement of the lawsuit that the mayor had presented to a special South Miami-Pinecrest council session. Residents demanded time to get a second opinion before their trees are declared infected and killed.

State scientists say citrus canker eats away at the trees' health and fruit production and is immune to chemical treatment.

But critics see in the eradication program the seeds of conspiracy, involving any number of players, including Wal-Mart, the powerful citrus industry, politicians and the three private contractors paid $97 for each tree cut down.

Compton said she understands. "It is heartbreaking," she said. ". . . But this is an emergency situation; the disease has spread and we've got to contain it. There is no cure."

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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