Published December 7, 2023
• 20 min read
MIAMIOn a recent summer evening, I stood in a parcel of one of the world’s rarest ecosystems, home to dozens of endemic, threatened, and even endangered species—and I stepped on one. Oops.
A teeny green perennial herb called Polygala smallii, or tiny polygala, poked out from beneath my hiking boot. It’s difficult to walk through the pine rocklands—a rare habitat of pine forests growing on limestone unique to Florida and the Bahamas—without stepping on at least one vulnerable organism. Researchers believe this may be one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in any ecosystem in the United States, says George Gann, executive director of the Institute for Regional Conservation. (Gann’s work is funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.)
In healthy pine rockland, hundreds of species of wildflowers and palms as well as lush hardwood shrubs grow on rocky, sometimes-sandy soil. These forests once covered more than 186,000 acres of South Florida, including most of urban Miami-Dade County. Because of rapid urban development, less than two percent of that ecosystem outside the Everglades remains today, according to the Tropical Audubon Society. What’s left provides habitats for more than three dozen imperiled species, including the Florida leafwing butterfly, the Miami tiger beetle, and the Florida bonneted bat.
This patch of pine rockland is adjacent to the site of a proposed water park and shopping complex called Miami Wilds. The controversial project has been under discussion since 1997, but little progress has been made. The plans for this plot originally included a 200-room hotel and spa, but over time, public outcry and legal challenges over environmental risks have winnowed the plans down to a water park, a smaller hotel, and a handful of shops. These plans include six million dollars to be set aside for pine rockland restoration efforts, says Miami Wilds developer Paul Lambert, founder of the group Lambert Advisory. “This part of the county has always been the most moderate-income area of the county with the lowest number of jobs,” he says. “By our numbers, it’s going to create over 400 jobs.”
The remaining 4,000 acres or so of pine rocklands in Florida are in jeopardy. Development has taken over much of what used to be pine rockland, and the remaining plots are fragmented, according to Miami-Dade County. In this parcel outside Miami, the land has been largely ravaged by the overgrowth of native palms and shrubs as well as invasive plant species such as the Brazilian peppertree, a shrub-like tree with red berries, and the Burma reed, a tall grass species.
Though it is threatened, this parcel is “the most important fragment of pine rockland left outside of Everglades National Park,” says Lauren Jonaitis, senior conservation director for the Tropical Audubon Society.
The ecosystem’s success once relied on periodic fires, which would promote germination of pine seeds and reduce invasive plants, among other benefits. But as Miami grew to become the city it is today, fires were suppressed, and prescribed burns became a risky option so close to human settlements, according to the Tropical Audubon Society. Now both native and invasive plants have become overgrown, sapping precious resources and smothering other forms of life that require sunlight and exposed limestone ground, Gann says.
The loss of species in these regions could wreak havoc on the local environment—both bats and beetles keep insect populations in check, and butterflies act as critical pollinators for local plant life. “The extinction of one species can affect the entire ecosystem,” Jonaitis says. “You pull the loose thread … it can unravel an entire sweater.”
As I stepped over sprawling plant growth—more carefully this time—we spotted a Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly, perched on a thin stem. About the size of my thumbprint, gray with white and black bands and a distinctive orange splotch on its wing, I almost missed it. Until recently, no one had seen the elusive butterflies in more than six months.
“Just think,” said an awed Dennis Olle, director of conservation for the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. “You’re one of the few people in the world that’s seen a Bartram’s hairstreak.”
In 2014 a county commissioner sought to declare the pine rocklands outside Miami a slum or “blighted area”—an area detrimental to public safety, health, or morals. But thanks to conservation efforts, Gann says, the ecosystem is healing.
Gann describes the work to restore Florida’s pine rocklands as a mix between forestry and landscaping. Some days, his team brings in professionals to set fires to eliminate plants like overgrown shrubs—in a habitat some 20 miles from the heart of bustling Miami. Other times, they cut down overly dense pines or invasive fire-resistant Burma reeds with chainsaws. Many days are spent methodically administering tablespoons of herbicide to the bases of invasive plants, so as not to poison their native neighbors.
Some conservation groups worry this progress is under threat because of the proposed Miami Wilds development, but Lambert says the project won’t affect any at-risk species.
Constructing Miami Wilds is not so much about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot—it’s already a parking lot. During the day, Zoo Miami’s one million visitors per year park here, in a lot that abuts a plot of the Richmond Pine Rocklands, the site of Gann’s restoration project. Some of the lot would be used for the water park, and the rest would be used for both water park and zoo parking.
But some wildlife advocates like Gann argue this space is significant since it’s adjacent to an imperiled ecosystem. As recently as 2021, endangered Miami tiger beetles have been found on the fringes of this property, according to the Tropical Audubon Society. And approximately 100 Florida bonneted bats—part of the largest remaining population of the most endangered bat in the country—are known to feed on insects in the parking lot at night, according to the Tropical Audubon Society.
A spokesperson for the Miami Wilds project said in an email that while bats fly over the property, “they are feeding above the parking lots in very low numbers.” He also emphasized that the species’ critical habitat does not overlap with the main paved site for the proposed water park, and regarding the parking lot that overlaps with tiger beetle habitat, he said he’s “not even sure if it qualifies for habitat because it has been paved.”
But Gann says this is one of the few remaining potential sites where pine rocklands could be restored, even if it is paved now.
“The irony here is we have such a special place,” Olle says. “But we’ve done our best to turn it to look like everything else.”
“Asphalt, asphalt, asphalt.” Developer Paul Lambert gestured to the Zoo Miami parking lot before us, indicating the 27.5-acre space where the imagined water park and facilities would be constructed. It didn’t look like much—neatly painted white lines on pavement separated by strips of grass and assorted trees. Even on a quiet Thursday morning, a handful of families unloaded toddlers from car seats into strollers.
Lambert isn’t unsympathetic to conservation—he acknowledges that Florida bonneted bats are “pretty amazing animals,” and along with the funds set aside for pine rockland conservation, he promises there will be a 50-foot buffer between the project border and the pines. But the idea that the proposed water park acreage—all paved, Lambert noted—was environmentally sensitive “crossed a laugh line,” he said. “This is an active parking lot every day.”
And yet the space is the subject of both a federal and a state lawsuit. In a 2006 voter referendum, Miami-Dade County residents agreed the land adjacent to Zoo Miami could be used as long as it was “not environmentally sensitive”—however, the term was not defined. In October 2022 wildlife groups Bat Conservation International and the Tropical Audubon Society sued the county for alleged noncompliance with the 2006 voter referendum since—they argue, amongst other items—land designated for the Miami Wilds project overlaps with critical habitat for both the Miami tiger beetle and the Florida bonneted bat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s maps.
In February 2023, four conservation groups, including the Tropical Audubon Society and the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, sued the National Park Service alongside several park officials for waiving the area’s land-use restrictions without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to certify the development wouldn’t harm endangered species or destroy critical habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service is now conducting a review to ensure development will not jeopardize endangered species or negatively alter their habitat. (Both the National Parks Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, citing the active litigation.)
In response to a request for comment, a Miami-Dade County representative shared a status report from the county mayor that includes a recommendation “that the County rescind the [Miami Wilds] lease” if the pending federal court case voids the release of land-use restrictions that allowed for development on this plot. The status report will be discussed at a meeting next week.
These suits and the water park development were the topic of a heated August 31 meeting hosted by the nonprofit Tropical Audubon Society, which is part of both lawsuits. Dozens of local citizens spent an hour and 40 minutes passionately discussing the lot’s future.
“This is really the moment to kill this thing,” said Lauren Jonaitis, senior conservation director for the Tropical Audubon Society. “We’re not against this project—we want to bring economic prosperity and jobs to the county,” she added. “We’re against this location.”
Ron Magill, conservation personality and communications director at Zoo Miami, stood to speak—but as a private citizen, he clarified, and not on behalf of the zoo. The zoo is operated by Miami-Dade County, which owns the land where Miami Wilds would be built. A towering presence, the room was hushed as Magill spoke. He said he was “embarrassed” that the zoo hadn’t taken a public stance on the issue.
“I’ve heard comments saying it’s just a parking lot,” Magill said of the proposed development land. “That is critical habitat.” The room erupted with raucous applause.
Three months later, Jose Romano, president of the Zoo Miami Foundation, issued a statement about the proposed development, saying that the zoo “conditionally welcomed the Miami Wilds Project” initially. But its endorsement hinged on “coming to terms on the issue of paid parking” and addressing environmental impacts. “At this point, the Zoo Miami Foundation does not believe that either of these concerns have been adequately addressed.”
The Miami Wilds representative noted that the Zoo Miami Foundation “has the same information today that they had when they supported the project back in 2020.” However, he said they “agree with the Foundation that any environmental concerns should be addressed,” and that the environmental study should “proceed and result in a determination.”
Habitat loss—and recovery?
Long before the land was the Zoo Miami parking lot, it was pine rockland, just like the majority of Miami-Dade County used to be. But in the 1940s, the land was razed and converted to a U.S. Air Force base. Though Lambert agrees that the county and federal government “have been a really poor steward of the pine rocklands,” the damage is already done, he says. “It’s kind of very clear that the pine rocklands have not been here since the early ‘40s.”
“There’s this argument … that well, we can always recover the forest,” Lambert says. “That’s not going to happen here … If we don’t develop a water park, this is going to be a utilized parking lot for our lifetimes and our kids’ lifetimes.”
But recovering the forest is exactly what Gann has in mind. He points to another nearby plot of land: A fenced asphalt lot his team has been working on, hand-picking out the invasive species. Without much intervention, the pinelands have started to reclaim their old territory—native vegetation has already begun sprouting through the cracks in the asphalt, breaking it down.
“It’s a pine rockland covered with asphalt,” Gann says. “This is what’s happening in the area on the east side in the footprint of Miami Wilds.” The whole area was once pine rockland, he says, and some of it can be that way again.
“We have to stop losing and start gaining,” Gann says. “Our best opportunity to prevent extinction is to grow the area.” Several studies suggest that habitat fragmentation can lead to extinction, and the remaining pine rocklands are so fragmented, species extinction is likely inevitable unless the ecosystem can be restored, he says.
“This is the last great opportunity to have a meaningful chunk of pine rockland,” Gann says. “If we think there’s even a remote chance we’re going to lose bats over this, or we’re going to lose habitat or whatever, can we just stop for a minute and be thoughtful?”
A parking lot, or critical habitat?
Miami Wilds developer Paul Lambert hopes water park construction can begin sometime next year, after the Fish and Wildlife Service issues a biological opinion on the land, which should include methods for developers to minimize species impact. “We’re not moving forward without that biological opinion,” he says.
Lambert says the negative reaction to Miami Wilds has largely been an emotional one. He suspects people have a “not in my backyard” attitude toward the project, and that the naysayers believe the water park is a symbol of choosing retail over conservation, but he believes the project won’t affect the imperiled species.
That’s where some conservationists disagree. “You’re talking about densifying development and putting public parking literally a foot away from critical habitat,” Gann says.
Even establishing a buffer between the new water park and wild areas may not be enough to negate the impact on species, says Tropical Audubon Society’s president Joe Barros. If it’s grass, they’ll likely have to perform upkeep “with their bug killer and fertilizer,” he speculates. The Miami Wilds representative said it’s too early for details about the buffer, but they would coordinate with the USFWS and the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management.
As I rode in Lambert’s car across the Zoo Miami parking lot, I noticed that we were on the edge, right next to the Richmond Pine Rockland plot. This space would serve as parking for both the zoo and the water park, and there are plans to revamp the lot, adding in lights and improving the drainage.
Lambert drove cautiously as we approached the end of the lot, slowing and steering away from the grassy border. “They have found some tiger beetles back in here,” he acknowledged. “They were on the pavement.”
The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected]. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.
>>> Read full article>>>
Copyright for syndicated content belongs to the linked Source : National Geographic – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/pine-rockland-ecosystem-restoration-miami-wilds