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ERMD helps expand sweetgrass harvest areas

Donna Frank, left, shows ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea how to identify and pick sweetgrass during an outing in Immokalee Nov. 16. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

In her quest for the perfect sweetgrass to make traditional Seminole baskets, Donna Frank has traveled far and wide both on and off the reservations.

Frank recently enlisted the help of the Environmental Resources Management Department (ERMD) to locate areas with sweetgrass with the hopes of finding new locations to harvest it. The first step in the process was for Frank to identify the specific grass to ERMD staff members. They recently went on an expedition to a field near the Immokalee Reservation.

Frank and ERMD staff biological technician Mandy D’Andrea, forester Grant Steelman, environmental science manager Karli Eckel and wildlife biologist Sean McHugh explored the patch of land in November 2023 and found a wide variety of grasses.

“Over the years in conversations with tribal members, we have been told sweetgrass is scarce on reservations,” Eckel said. “When it is found, it isn’t as long as it is preferred. We want to implement targeted land management on reservations, but we need to see live samples and habitat to narrow down the specific grass.”

During the outing, Steelman found at least six types of grasses, including some sweetgrass that had produced seed heads after it flowered. The area had an abundance of sweetgrass and saw palmetto plants.

“Sweetgrass thrives on fire,” Steelman explained. “Saw palmettos flourish after a prescribed burn and the pups regrow. The sweetgrass also comes back after a fire.”

In late November, Frank and the ERMD team went to a site in Jupiter, where she had previously found sweetgrass.

“The location had several species of grass and Donna pointed out the difference between sweetgrass and ‘imposter’ grasses,” Eckel said. “They look similar but don’t produce the same results in the baskets. They dry brittle, can break easily and don’t have the same color or longevity. Donna showed us how she identifies and harvests the sweetgrass. It was traditional knowledge, and she was very helpful while teaching us. Now we can start identifying locations on reservations so we can enhance the habitat to promote the grass.”

ERMD biological technician Mandy D’Andrea, left, forester Grant Steelman, center, and environmental science manager Karli Eckel examine and photograph various grasses growing in Immokalee. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

ERMD can also identify areas outside of the reservations and try to partner with counties and the state to coordinate cooperation to create more opportunities for tribal members to harvest. Eckel said ERMD has started the conversation with Palm Beach County and it seems open to a collaboration.

The Seminole Tribe has reserved rights on certain lands, including the Big Cypress National Preserve. The legislation that created the preserve included language giving tribal members the ability to practice culturally-based plant gathering usage there.

“It’s always easier to coordinate at the federal level because that’s where the rights already exist,” Eckel said. “But we can work with local and state partners and identify a mechanism to create opportunities for tribal members.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at