Two small flowering plants trampled to the brink of extinction and found in a pine rockland forest where a developer wants to build a Walmart will be added to the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.
The listing, which becomes official Oct. 4, will not stop construction of the shopping center and apartment complex near Zoo Miami in southern Miami-Dade County. But it does mean the plants — the white-bloomed Florida brickell-bush and yellow Carter’s small-flowered flax — will receive some measure of protection, said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that sued the government in 2011 to speed up the designation of hundreds of endangered species.
“Unfortunately there’s a wrinkle with the Endangered Species Act where plants are treated as second-class citizens,” she said.
While animals receive safeguards, she explained, plants outside federal land are only indirectly protected if they are also listed by the state. In this case, Florida has designated Carter’s flax endangered, meaning harming it could trigger legal penalties.
“So there is slightly more protection to the plant than what would appear on first blush,” she said.
U.S. wildlife officials are also considering mapping out a critical habitat for the plants, which could include about 2,700 acres of rockland left outside Everglades National Park. The designation of habitat, which only protects plants on federal land or kicks in with projects involving federal money, is still pending.
Pine rockland has drawn increased attention in recent months after a Palm Beach County developer announced plans to build the strip mall on about 88 acres of rare forest that is part of the last remaining intact tract of rockland outside national park territory. County officials are also considering building a 100-acre Orlando-style theme park, hotel and convention center on nearby forest land.
The forest once made up a vast savannah that covered about 180,000 acres from Florida City to just south of the Miami River. To survive, the forest needs to burn regularly to keep its canopy open, an event that occurred naturally during Florida’s dry season. But increased development that paved over the forest also impeded the wildfires, shrinking it to just 2 percent of its historic size.
When U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials learned of development plans, they urged Ram, the developer, to stop work and obtain permits or risk breaking laws. In recent weeks, they have met with Ram officials to iron out details for a survey of rare plants and animals, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Warren said Wednesday. Federal officials have also met with county officials and the University of Miami, which sold the land to Ram and still owns about 70 acres of forest nearby, Warren said.
In August, federal officials also listed two butterflies endangered that roam the rockland forest, the Bartram’s hairstreak and Florida leaf wing. That designation also included thousands of acres of critical habitat for the butterflies.
Adding plants to the list of imperiled inhabitants of the forest “tells you the landscape is disappearing,” and needs to be managed as a whole, not just species by species, said attorney Dennis Olle, conservation director for the Miami chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.
“We actually have something unique here. It’s one of the most botanically diverse places in the world and we’re hellbent on making it look like a Walmart with a bunch of oak trees,” he said.