Two rare plants that grow in pine rockland slated for a controversial Walmart shopping center and proposed amusement park will be getting an additional level of protection, federal wildlife managers said Friday.
More than 2,700 acres will be designated as “critical habitat” for the Florida brickell-bush and Carter’s small-flowered flax, two small ground flowers that grow in the crevices of the rocky forest floor and are found only in South Miami-Dade County.
But because of the complexity of the federal law, the designation, which will be formally announced on Monday, will affect the two projects differently.
For the Walmart project, which ignited angry protests last year after the University of Miami sold 88 acres near Zoo Miami to a Palm Beach County developer, the decision means little. After the deal surfaced, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told developer Peter Cummings to come up with a plan to protect a host of endangered species that live in the forest or risk legal action. Cummings submitted a plan in May for the parcel — the largest remaining tract of pine rockland outside Everglades National Park — which the federal agency is still reviewing.
Developers of a theme park called Miami Wilds and county officials, however, may face additional hurdles and scrutiny because plans for the 100-acre water park include an antenna field owned by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“For that land to be transferred to another agency, they have to do a consultation,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Warrensaid. “That tells us whether there’s likely to be an impact on that species.”
Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Pine rockland, which can only be found in South Florida and parts of Cuba and the Bahamas, once covered much of Miami-Dade County’s high ground between Florida City and the Miami River. Today, less than 2 percent remains outside the park, providing habitat for a growing list of endangered species including four butterflies, bonneted bats and the Miami tiger beetle.
Suburban development that has trampled the pine rockland has also nearly wiped out the two plants. At least five populations of the foot-high yellow flowering Carter’s small-flowered flax have disappeared. Four of the remaining populations have fewer than 20 plants, with the total number of plants estimated at just 1,300. The brickell-bush has fared better, but not by much: just 2,150 to 3,700 of the plants are believed to survive.
While the endangered species act spells out protections for animals and insects, the law treats plants “as second-class citizen status,” said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the government in 2011 to speed up action on a backlog of endangered species.
Lopez argued that the federal agency does too little to protect species by defining harm too loosely.
“The service has created this impossibly high bar where you’d have to wipe out all habitat,” she said. “The laws are only as strong as their enforcement.”
The land designated for habitat covers seven areas for each plant which in many cases overlaps. The two largest areas include land around Zoo Miami known as the Richmond pinelands for the U.S. Navy base that once occupied the site and the Navy Wells Pineland Preserve west of Florida City.
The habitat includes private and public land, some occupied, and ranges in size from two-acre patches to 339 acres. In picking sites, wildlife managers considered the quality of the rockland but also whether surrounding land was urban or natural and how well the patches were connected. The service also considered future sea rise levels and designated land that does not now have either plant but could provide habitat if water levels rise.
“This land is really important and here’s another example of two species that are down to very little habitat,” Lopez said. “We can’t keep screwing it up. We’re running out of opportunities to get it right.”