A section of rare and endangered forest in Florida’s Miami-Dade County will be destroyed to build a Walmart, Chick-fil-A, Chili’s, 900 apartments, and an LA Fitness. Approximately 88 acres of the pine rockland forest was sold by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer this month, the Miami Herald reported.
While the sale included an agreement to set aside 40 acres for a preserve, researchers say the area they will develop is a globally imperiled ecosystem with a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life found nowhere else.
“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. Pine rocklands are home to a variety of rare and threatened species and occur only in South Florida and the Caribbean. “Over 225 types of native plants occur here and more than 20 percent of the plant species are found here and nowhere else in the world,” according to Miami-Dade County.
Thanks to urban development, fire suppression, and invasion of exotic species, the habitat is now severely threatened. The pinelands once covered 185,000 acres of the county but by 1996, only two percent of the forest remained. Martin said that because pine rocklands are upland ecosystems and thus on higher ground, they’ve long been targets for development in Florida. And with over 2.5 million people living in Miami-Dade County, development is seemingly endless.
The widespread development of the area has led to fragmentation of the pine rocklands, Martin explained, with each little parcel of ecosystem serving as a refuge for plants and animals. “That piece in particular is connected to one of the historically largest tracts remaining,” Martin said of the 88 acres sold by the University of Miami. “So for them to start chipping away at it is kind of awful.”
The university “said in a statement that it is committed to protecting the forests” but did not respond to questions from the Miami Herald. Casey Cummings, CEO of Ram, the development company that acquired the land, told the paper that particular area “provided a ‘unique chance to create … a place where people can easily walk from the neighborhood to shops and elsewhere.’”
Cummings also “pointed out that the company could have built even more housing — 1,200 apartments — and added 70,000 square feet of retail space to the 300,000 it has planned.” Ram is planning to develop 35 additional acres adjacent to the tract in question.
While the section of Florida’s pine rocklands that extends into Everglades National Park is protected, “most of the federally listed species are found outside of the park,” Martin said. “These little pockets are just hanging on.”
Jennifer Possley with Fairchild Tropical Gardens and a team of researchers were recently allowed to rescue some of the threatened species from the area as development stands to wipe them out completely. Possley told the local CBS4 station, “We’ve rescued 30 species so far but there are about 200 in there.”
In addition to numerous species of plants, the land is also home to the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly, which is expected to be added to the endangered species list this summer. But federal officials told the Miami Herald that they are limited in what they can do, as “habitat for endangered wildlife can be protected only if federal money or property is involved. And sanctions can be issued only if endangered animals — say, the eggs of a butterfly left on a croton — are killed.”
While Martin’s organization works with landowners and land managers to protect and restore ecosystems like Florida’s pine rocklands, she said that as a small nonprofit, their ability to slow the rapid rate of loss is limited. “We work with the people that want to maintain it,” she said. Martin also noted that while the University of Miami sale is by far the highest profile, she sees For Sale signs in the rocklands on a regular basis. Martin frequently tries to track down the owners of unmanaged sections of pine rockland forest, but “I’ll find that its owned by a bank in Ohio,” she said. “Not even a person you can contact to try to manage it.”
Based on the loss she sees, Martin thinks the statistic that just two percent of pine rockland forest remains in Florida might even be high. “Something needs to be done; otherwise, we have to accept that number is going to keep going down,” she said.