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article imageFlorida to bulldoze rare pine forest for Walmart?

By Megan Hamilton     Jul 15, 2014 in Environment
Miami - It is one of the world's rarest forests and it exists only in Cuba, the Bahamas, and a tiny part of Southern Florida. Thanks to the University of Miami and Walmart, this forest may become even rarer.
This rockland forest is home to plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world, in a small stretch of Miami-Dade county, according to The Miami Herald. Despite this rarity, the University of Miami sold about 88 acres of this pristine forest to Ram, a Palm Beach County developer and plans are in the works for a 158,000-square-foot Walmart, an LA Fitness center, a Chik-fil-A and a Chili's restaurant and 900 apartments.
Ram also plans to develop an additional 35 adjacent acres that are still owned by the university, The Herald reports.
To secure the sale, the university and developer set aside 40 acres of rockland, but environmentalists say it's not nearly enough, Takepart reports.
"You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how," lawyer Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, told The Herald. "This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM."
In a statement, the university said that it's committed to protecting the forests, and that it has helped to execute plans for the preserve, but didn't respond to questions from The Herald.
Only 2900 acres of pine rockland forest are left outside of the Everglades, and Florida is littered with strip malls. Ram has built dozens of these malls and large residential tracts across Florida and the Southeast, The Herald reports.
The company chose this particular tract of forest 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 wrote in a response to questions, according to The Herald.
Fortunately, the county has a forest-preservation ordinance that stipulates landowners must allow biologists and wildlife organizations to rescue plants before construction begins. That's when people began to get worried.
When rescuers began combing through the forest in June and earlier this month, they found an absolute treasure trove of rare plants outside of land that was marked for preservation. They also spotted rare butterflies, including the Bartram's hairstreak, which is expected to be placed on the endangered species list this summer, and the Atala hairstreak, which nearly became extinct in the middle of the 20th century, The Herald Reports.
"There was so much material there that we had to kind of prioritize. It was acres and acres," Jennifer Possley, a field biologist with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden told the The Herald. She has been allowed to collect as much as she can.
Federal officials are keeping an eye on the project — mainly due to the pending protection of the Bartram's hairstreak butterfly. It depends on a host plant, the pineland croton, which was found in the area. Officials say they are limited in regards to what they can do. Habitat for endangered wildlife can only be protected if federal money or property is involved, and sanctions can only be issued if endangered animals — such as butterfly eggs 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," Craig W. Aubrey, South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Herald. "So we certainly place a great value on these species'conservation."
"The butterflies that we're evaluating are very rare, so any kind of loss to their population would certainly be concerning," he said.
It's a frustrating situation for county officials as well because they are held back by a peculiar ordinance that only allows them to require forest protection when the land is developed.
"That land, until development is triggered, simply sits there," Craig Grossenbacher, chief of the county's Natural Resources Planning Section told The Herald. "The designation [of protected forest] doesn't automatically trigger any management or maintenance of the land."
Some protection, however, is better than none, he said, adding that the 40-acre preserve is the largest since the county started the program.
Sadly, due to neglect, large swaths of the property now owned by Ram don't qualify as forest anymore. During the years it was owned by the university, outside species invaded much of the land and slash pines, have been allowed to flourish without the control of natural fires. They have become large and bushy, blocking out the sunlight that is essential for fragile rockland plants like the deltoid spurge--a tiny herb that favors crevices in the forest's limestone floor, Grossenbacher notes.
The Fish and Wildlife Service lists several plants and animals that may be affected by the destruction of this forest, including:
Key deer.
• Kirtland’s warbler.
• Bald eagle.
Florida panther.
Small’s milkpea.
Crenulate lead-plant.
It's sad to think that this beautiful forest will give way to people wandering around in a Walmart in the middle of the night, or gorging themselves at Chik-fil-A on the grounds of what was once a rare forest, but some people still hold out hope.
Restoring the Walmart land is possible, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Salvato told The Herald.
"A goodly portion of that site could probably be restpored 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 firm they're going to bulldoze."
The largest remaining stretch of rockland forest, some 19,000 acres, is found in Everglades National Park.
Where hopefully, Walmart will stay out.
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