Story and photos by Allison Arteaga
A Crusade Against the Space Coast’s Most Devastating Invasive Plant
“President Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ and that’s kind of my philosophy,” John said. “This helps the community, it gets rid of these obnoxious invasive trees, and I meet an awful lot of nice people through it. I’ll do this until I no longer physically can.”
For more than two decades, 90-year-old John Baker has held a personal vendetta against Brazilian pepper trees. The noxious weeds are among the most aggressive and widespread of all invasive exotic pest plants here on the Space Coast and they’ve spread like wildfire, killing off entire ecosystems as they go. That didn’t sit right with John, a lean, bespectacled former military officer. So he volunteers his time to eradicate as many of the trees as he can between the Pineda and Eau Gallie Causeways and has singlehandedly destroyed every last pepper tree, free of charge, on more than 1,000 sites thus far.
Each week, he arrives at local residences equipped with his favorite chain saw and trusty old herbicide spray can, shuffling over to greet his clients with a warm, weathered smile. He may not seem intimidating, but once he locates his arboreal enemies and fires up his chainsaw, he’s hell on wheels: a menacing, one-man wrecking crew bent on sending every last pepper tree to meet its maker. His eyes light up as the sawdust flies, and even the biggest, most brazen of pepper trees quake with fear.
For the trees, it’s a long overdue day of reckoning. And for John, it’s actually kind of fun. “Whenever I’m out driving and I see a big stand of pepper trees, I just want to stop the car, grab my chainsaw, and go after them,” he says with a laugh.
His wife bought him his first chainsaw back in 1989, after his retirement, and he got his start eradicating pepper trees shortly thereafter as part of a volunteer force assembled to clear out the Samsons Island recreation area in Satellite Beach. But he didn’t quit once that job was done. Instead, he put the word out through local publications and city governments that he would take on any Brazilian pepper tree eradication job between the causeways for free, regardless of the size or difficulty.
“I guess, because I knew how to operate a chainsaw and I saw a need for it, this eventually became a hobby,” John said of his pepper tree busting habit. “I don’t play golf and I don’t play tennis, so this is my way of exercising, plus it helps the community. And at 90 years old, I think I’m doing pretty well.”
In spite of his age, John seems to handle the hard labor of removing Brazilian pepper trees with ease, happily toiling away all by himself in the hot sun for up to four hours straight. Depending on the size and number of trees present, a single property can take him as long as two weeks to clear, and he must also apply a special herbicide to the freshly cut stumps within five minutes in order to prevent the plants from regenerating.
But regardless of the labor-intensive nature of his work, he refuses to ever take a penny from his clients, saying that the chance to help the community and the environment is reward enough. In fact, he wishes he could provide free services to even more Space Coast residents beyond his beachside range, but footing his own gas costs prevents him from doing so. Eventually, he hopes community volunteers from other areas will join his cause and rise to take up the pepper-busting mantle. Because if there’s one thing he’s proven through his efforts, it’s that one person can make a real difference.
To contact John Baker for Brazilian pepper tree removal services or volunteer opportunities, call (321) 777-0996.