2014-02-06 / Front Page

Pepper trees fear him

Behrens has removed scores of the plants
Dan Parker
Reporter


Bill Behrens uses a saw to cut down a Brazilian pepper tree on a recent day on a piece of undeveloped land near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute campus. 
Staff photo by Dan Parker Bill Behrens uses a saw to cut down a Brazilian pepper tree on a recent day on a piece of undeveloped land near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute campus. Staff photo by Dan Parker One day about five years ago, Bill Behrens looked out his kitchen window at his back yard off Lantana Drive and saw something that bugged him.

It was a few clumps of Brazilian pepper trees, an invasive species that has spread like wildfire over Port Aransas over the past few decades, squeezing out native plants.

“I realized they would spread if nothing was done and then it would be ugly,” he said.

Behrens went out and cut them down. But he didn’t stop there.

Working alone for a few years and later joined by a few friends, Behrens has spent many days wiping scores of pepper trees away from acres and acres of open Port Aransas land. The results can be seen by anyone who gazes out at the sand dunes while driving down eastern parts of Beach Street or Cotter Avenue, heading toward the beach.


Bill Behrens breaks a branch apart while taking down a Brazilian pepper tree on undeveloped acreage near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute on a recent day. 
Staff photo by Dan Parker Bill Behrens breaks a branch apart while taking down a Brazilian pepper tree on undeveloped acreage near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute on a recent day. Staff photo by Dan Parker Behrens isn’t the only person in Port Aransas who has made efforts to control pepper trees. City of Port Aransas grounds crews have worked at it, and so has the non-profit Keep Port Aransas Beautiful (KPAB) and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

Individual Port Aransans who have done significant work to remove pepper trees through public education and working in the trenches include Carolyn Grosse, Julie Findley, Lyndon Holcomb, Nan Dietert and former Port Aransas resident John Fucik.

But few, if any, have put in more volunteer hours as individuals to reduce the pepper trees’ numbers than Behrens has over the past five years.

“I think it’s been very admirable work,” said Mike Secich, a KPAB board member. “It takes a lot of initiative. It’s a lot of hard work, and he’s not out there for glory. He just did it because he wanted to do it and wanted to make things look better.”

Behrens said he wants to keep pepper trees from getting an even stronger foothold in town.

“ The dunes look better without them, and especially when you do this work in the summer time, it really keeps you in shape,” said Behrens, a 78-year-old retired marine geologist who spent much of his career with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI). “You can lose two or three pounds in an afternoon out there.”

Many agree that pepper trees must be controlled, because their spread is otherwise so rapid. The city has even obtained grants in the past to go after the bush-like plants.

But pepper trees aren’t completely bad. Some folks like the way they look. The plants produce bright green foliage and big clusters red berries. They provide habitat for birds, which is no small thing in a town like Port Aransas, where so many species can be found that the town has become a destination for birders from throughout the country and beyond.

Behrens has been sensitive to that. Behrens preserved some of the pepper tree plants in a cluster that has been frequented by certain birds – crowned night herons – in the area of the institute’s Wetlands Education Center. Pepper trees come in male and female varieties, so Behrens eliminated only the females in that group, to keep them from reproducing.

Most of what Behrens’ work has been on broad, undeveloped acreage owned by UTMSI and Nueces County’s I.B. Magee Beach Park. He also has labored on privately owned lots. He’s always gotten the permission from property owners before going after the pepper trees on their land, he said.

When the plants are small, Behrens simply pulls them up with his hands. When they’re bigger, he digs them up with a shovel. When they’re even bigger, he cuts them down with a bow saw. Occasionally, to get through an especially thick tree trunk, he calls on a friend who has a chainsaw.

He also applies a herbicide to the stumps, sometimes making repeated visits and re-applying the liquid to make sure the plant dies.

Charlie Casto started helping Behrens three to four years ago. Also helping are Winter Texans Dan McKeen, who splits his time between Port Aransas and Fife Lake, Mich., and Winter Texan John Ludwig.

Behrens “has taken it as a mission in his retirement years to try and control the Brazilian pepper,” McKeen said. “…I’m amazed that a man his age is able to work as hard as he works, but he gets out there and really does an amazing amount of hard work.”

Behrens said he’s seen some interesting things out there in that dune acreage where people normally don’t go (and aren’t encouraged to roam). He has seen at least one den-type of hole that coyotes dug under a big pepper tree.

“And you see (the remains of) some of what they’ve eaten, like birds,” he said. “In fact, I’ve seen a couple of skeletons of coyotes that died out there. And I’ve seen things like a little collar from a domesticated animal they’d caught.”

He said he’s only seen one rattlesnake.

One of Behrens’ proudest achievements has been stripping big pepper plants away from a large sand dune across Cotter Avenue from UTMSI. Doing that helped expose the remnants of a large gun mount that was placed atop the dune during World War II, when Americans were on the lookout for enemy submarines that could venture into Texas waters.

The vestiges weren’t unknown before Behrens removed the plants, but they’re much more visible now to passersby. That brings some satisfaction to Behrens, who also happens to work as a volunteer docent at the Port Aransas Museum.

Behrens said folks can call him if they want help removing pepper trees from their private property, and he’ll do the work for free, when he has time. He can be reached at (361) 749-5314.

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