Walmart planned for endangered forest lands in South Florida

Miami Dade – by Jenny Staletovich

One of the world’s rarest forests, a section of Miami-Dade County’s last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, is getting a new resident: a Walmart.

About 88 acres of rockland, a globally imperiled habitat containing a menagerie of plants, animals and insects found no place else, was sold this month by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer. To secure permission for the 158,000-square-foot box store, plus an LA Fitness center, Chik-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants and about 900 apartments, the university and the developer, Ram, agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve.

Ram also plans to develop 35 adjacent acres still owned by the university.

But with less than 2 percent of the vast savanna that once covered South Florida’s spiny ridge remaining, the deal has left environmentalists and biologists scratching their heads.

“You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM,” said attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, who wrote to Florida’s lead federal wildlife agent Friday demanding an investigation.

The university said in a statement that it is committed to protecting the forests — only about 2,900 acres of rockland are left outside Everglades National Park — and helped execute plans for the preserve, but would not respond to questions.

Ram, which has built dozens of strip shopping centers and dense residential projects across Florida and the Southeast, chose the land at Coral Reef Drive and Southwest 127th Avenue because it provided a “unique chance to create . . . a place where people can easily walk from the neighborhood to shops and elsewhere,” CEO Casey Cummings said in a written response to questions.

The site also provided easy access to highways and jobs, and met a growing demand for “high-quality rental housing, shopping, fitness and dining options,” he said.

Cummings 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.

The land, originally part of the 2,100-acre Richmond Naval Air Station, has remained largely undeveloped since UM opened its South Campus in 1946 in buildings left standing after a 1945 hurricane battered the base and blew down blimp hangars. The university built primate cages on about nine acres. A half-dozen buildings totaling about 70,000 square feet housed malaria research, studies on food and sound, and provided storage.

Over the years, the university floated plans to build offices and apartments, but none materialized until 2003, when the school suggested creating an academic village.

By then, the county had recognized the significance of the critical rockland that provides habitat for several endangered species, including the bald eagle and indigo snake, the Florida bonneted bat, which was given federal protection last year, and two rare butterflies expected to be protected this summer. A 1984 ordinance required the preservation of at least 80 percent of rockland if an owner is to build on such land.

When the university proposed the academic village plan, county biologist John Tim Joyner said he was the only biologist working in the forest division. The UM tract, totaling 138 acres, was far more than he could manage, so the county signed off on a private survey ordered by UM.

“I agree more could have been preserved. But what they preserved complied with the code,” Joyner said. “And that was a big selling point. [UM was] not managing the land, and we had no way to get them to manage the land.”

Plans for the academic village fell through, but the 2004 survey survived, becoming the basis for the conservation plan at Coral Reef Commons, the Ram project proposed in 2011 that includes the Walmart. As part of its forest-preservation ordinance, the county requires landowners to allow biologists and wildlife organizations to rescue plants before construction. That’s when the concerns started circulating.

To their surprise, rescuers picking their way through the forest in June and earlier this month found a trove of rare plants outside land staked off for preservation, including the tiny, endangered polygala smallii, a small flowering herb. They also spotted rare butterflies, including the Bartram’s hairstreak, one of the butterflies expected to be named to the endangered species list this summer, and the Atala hairstreak, which almost went extinct in the middle of the 20th century.

“There was so much material there that we had to kind of prioritize. It was acres and acres,” said Jennifer Possley, a field biologist with Fairchild Tropical Garden, who has been allowed to collect as much as she can.

Federal officials say they are closely watching the project, given the pending protection of the Bartram’s hairstreak butterflies, which need a host plant, the pineland croton, that was found in the area. But officials say they are limited in what they can do. 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.

“Our listed plants are very rare, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that so little habitat remains. So we certainly place a great value on these species’ conservation,” said Craig W. Aubrey, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The butterflies that we’re evaluating are very rare, so any kind of loss to their population would certainly be concerning,” he said.

County officials say they, too, are hamstrung by an ordinance that allows them to require forest protection only when the land is developed.

“That land, until development is triggered, simply sits there. The designation [of protected forest] doesn’t automatically trigger any management or maintenance of the land,” said Craig Grossenbacher, chief of the county’s Natural Resources Planning Section.

And getting some land under management is better than none, he said. The 40-acre preserve is the largest since the county started the program, he said.

Grossenbacher also said large swaths of the Ram property no longer qualify as forest. During the years UM owned it, outside species invaded much of the land and slash pines, allowed to flourish without the control of natural fires, became too thick, blocking the sunlight needed for fragile rockland plants like the deltoid spurge, a tiny herb that grows in the crevices of the forest’s limestone floor.

In Florida, native plants are under siege. The past 50 years were particularly harsh, according to a 2002 study by the Institute for Regional Conservation that found only 23 percent of native plants are now considered safe. About 40 species grow only in the pine rocklands, which before developers arrived ran from Homestead north to the Miami River.

The largest remaining stretch of rockland, about 19,000 acres, exists in Everglades National Park. Outside park, the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program has bought about 630 acres since 1990, and about 40 small stands are preserved with the help of Fairchild and the Institute for Regional Conservation.

Restoring more of the Walmart land would not be difficult, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Salvato, who pointed to the success of nearby forests maintained by Zoo Miami and the county.

“A goodly portion of that site could probably be restored given the opportunity,” he said. “We’re going to have bona fide listed species there. And if the project were taking place a few years from now, it would be open and shut. We’ve got people photographing Bartram’s hairstreak on the very terra firma they’re going to bulldoze.”

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