A developer building a Walmart on a tract of disappearing forest between two national parks in south Miami-Dade County should stop all work until a survey of endangered wildlife is completed, federal officials warned this week.
In a strongly worded letter sent to Ram Realty Services, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said at least eight threatened species, including the federally protected Florida bonneted bat and two endangered plants, could inhabit about 140 acres of pine rockland north of Zoo Miami off Coral Reef Drive.
Field Supervisor Craig Aubrey said Ram should first obtain a federal permit before proceeding with any work that could threaten protected species.
“We want to work with them to make sure there’s a project that balances the economic development with the needs of the species there,” Aubrey said. “It’s not just one species. There’s a lot of sensitive resources out there.”
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In a statement, Ram Chairman Peter Cummings said the company, which received the letter within the last two days, was reviewing the recommendations and plans to meet with wildlife officials.
“We will take no action that disturbs the natural environment before resolving the Service’s concerns,” the statement said. “The environment will be a valuable asset for the community we plan to create.”
Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said in a statement his company was also dedicated to preservation, having “worked for nearly a decade on conservation efforts to protect priority lands across the country.”
But the plan to construct one of the retail giant’s discount stores in a development called Coral Reef Commons has generated backlash since it was reported in a Herald story this week. Much of the outrage has been aimed at the University of Miami, which sold the 88-acre parcel to Ram for $22 million.
Tropical Audubon, which had fought to save the land for years, fired off a letter and online petitions have collected thousands of signatures.
“You can look at the response from the public,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon. “If I was the Walmart CEO, I would pull out.”
Critics, including former UM students, have complained that the university, which pours millions into its Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy, is being a poor environmental steward.
“I can’t believe...UM, which I believe teaches the importance of conservation, would partake in this horrific deal,” alumni Paul Anthony said in an email.
The university, which has declined to answer questions, said in a statement Thursday it was committed to preserving natural resources and that it had worked with the county to come up with a management plan that preserves about 40 acres of the tract, as required under a county ordinance designed to save endangered rockland.
“We went through a transparent, public process with DERM and the County including public meetings,” the statement said. “The University acted in good faith and in compliance with all rules and regulations in its handling of the South Campus property.”
Just two percent remain of about 165,000 acres of pine rocklands that once stretched from Homestead to the Miami River on an upland ridge. The rare rocklands occur in just two places in the world — Miami-Dade County and the Bahamas — and provide habitat for a host of animals, insects and plants found no place else on earth.
UM had operated a South Campus on the land, part of the old Richmond Naval Air Station, since the 1940s. It was used mainly for research projects and storage. The school left most of the land undeveloped and, county regulators say, failed to manage the forest and allowed it to degrade.
In 2004, after deciding to build an academic village, the school conducted a botanical field study to determine what pinelands remained. The study eventually got folded into the Coral Reef Commons project after Ram and UM agreed to the land sale. In addition to the 158,000-square-foot box store, the project includes space for an LAFitness, a Chik-fil-A, a Chili’s and about 900 apartments.
The deal is a profitable one for UM. Federal records show the school acquired the land for free: the government gave the university two parcels as “surplus” military land: a 105-acre section in 1981 and a second 30-acre parcel in 1997, records show.
In his letter this week, Aubrey said federal wildlife officers are concerned the project will damage critical habitat outside the preserved lands. One of the animals they are particularly concerned about is the Florida bonneted bat, which roosts in the crevices of large trees and has been found in the area.
“If there are large trees on site, which there are, there’s potential for bats to be there,” said Paula Halupa, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “I’d like to work with the developer to retain the trees and check for potential roosts before the trees are felled.”
The federal agency also expects to add two rare butterflies, the Bartram’s hairstreak and Florida leafwing, to the endangered species list this summer. Both need plants found in pine rocklands to live.
Equally important is managing the lands with seasonal burning, Aubrey said in his letter, which warned Ram that if it violated the Endangered Species Act by illegally killing species or harming habitat it could face “fines of up to $200,000 and/or up to six months imprisonment per violation.”
While the Ram project represents the largest remaining intact tract, environmentalists say there are other parcels remaining that need better protection than the county’s endangered lands ordinance, which can only be enforced when development plans are submitted.
“There needs to be an overall habitat conservation plan for the pineland rather than having it bought up piece by piece because with this piece by piece (management) you end up with pieces,” said attorney Dennis Olle, conservation director for Miami Blue, the local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, and a board member at Tropical Audubon. “Maybe the Endangered Species Act will force people to do the planning that should have been done all along.”