The recent sale of a section of pine rocklands forest, a critically endangered ecosystem in South Florida, by the University of Miami to a developer planning to build a Walmart, Chick-fil-A, LA Fitness and 900 apartments has caused quite a stir, but it isn’t the only threat to the forest. A major development, complete with an amusement park, restaurants, a hotel and conference center, has been in the works for nearly a decade, the Miami Herald reported this week.
Voters approved the project, led by 20th Century Fox, in a 2006 referendum specifying that development would only occur “on Metrozoo property on land that is not environmentally sensitive and is outside the animal attractions.”
However, according to a letter from the county mayor to the president of the University of Miami obtained by the Herald, “part of the deal calls for a highway exit ramp through the fragile forest.” Additionally, a 20th Century Fox rendering shows a 100-acre theme park and sports complex planned for property currently owned by the Coast Guard that would encroach onto land designated as natural forest or endangered.
Request for comment to 20th Century Fox were referred to the project’s developer, Miami Wilds. “In mid-2013 Miami Wilds submitted a concept development plan to Miami Dade County for the Zoo Miami Entertainment Area property which the County owns. We are in an early concept phase of this project and there is no deal in place,” Miami Wilds said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress. “We are keenly aware of the issues and will work closely with the County. We are currently waiting for the County’s direction as it relates to developing the project adjacent to environmentally sensitive areas. Miami Wilds is committed to developing the project employing best practices consistent with good environmental stewardship.”
Having once spanned 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County, the rocklands have been reduced to just two percent of their original size, a destruction experts attribute largely to the rapid rate of development in the area.
Pine rocklands only occur in South Florida and the Caribbean and contain a remarkable number of rare and threatened species. “Compared to other habitats you might come across, it’s very, very diverse,” Sarah Martin, a biologist with the Institute for Regional Conservation, told ThinkProgress in July.
While the 20th Century Fox project has been underway for some time, some local officials say they haven’t been consulted on the potential impact it could have on an ecosystem found nowhere else.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not been approached about this project and has not seen any official documentation regarding it,” Ken Warren with the USFWS Southeast regional office said via email. “We encourage any of the involved parties to contact us as soon as possible and certainly before they get too far down the road in the planning process, because if they’re planning to develop in the reported area(s) we have serious concerns about impacts to the rare habitat and imperiled plant and animal species found there.”
Warren said the agency would be meeting with Miami-Dade County officials “soon” regarding both the Fox project and their wish to have better communication with the county regarding development projects on or near sensitive lands.
“There is a permitting process that the group will have to go through,” County Commissioner David Moss told ThinkProgress, adding that “the message has been sent that we expect them to minimize the impact on the pine rocklands.” However, Moss emphasized that “we have to balance concern for the environment with jobs and economic benefit for the county.”
When asked about the concerns of the Fish and Wildlife Service and other environmental groups, Moss said those issues weren’t raised throughout the process of finalizing the deal for the property that will include Walmart. As for the 20th Century Fox agreement that’s currently being negotiated, Moss said they will continue to follow the process that’s in place while noting that in recent years, the state legislature has weakened the county’s ability to oversee major development projects. “We used to have a much more vigorous process at the state level which was basically watered down,” Moss said.
The section of Florida’s pine rocklands that extends into Everglades National Park is protected from development, but Sarah Martin with the Institute for Regional Conservation noted that “most of the federally listed species are found outside of the park,” making every small encroachment a serious threat. Due to the breakneck pace of development and other problems like fire suppression and invasive species, the rocklands have been largely broken into parcels, rather than one large area that’s easy to protect. “These little pockets are just hanging on,” Martin said.
Joe Maguire, natural areas manager with the county’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, cautioned against reacting too soon to news regarding the 20th Century Fox plan. “The plans they submitted were very preliminary, by no means close to being final,” Maguire said, adding that moving forward, “each iteration of the plan would be reviewed … [and] I’d be giving my input on environmental impacts.”