FIU eyes campus nature preserve for athletic fields

Fields vs. Forest At Florida International University

A fight to use part of a campus nature preserve for athletic fields is heating up.
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A fight to use part of a campus nature preserve for athletic fields is heating up.

Plans to build athletic fields on a nature preserve containing a rare patch of endangered rock pineland at Florida International University’s Sweetwater campus has ignited a campus debate.

In February, the school announced that it had changed course on converting parking lots next to the football stadium into much-needed intramural fields.

Instead, administrators pitched what they called a better, cheaper plan: Carve 2.82 acres out of the north end of the 35-year-old preserve. The neglected pineland, which has not been maintained with prescribed fires, would remain intact, but a man-made pond in the midst of a federally-funded environmental restoration would be filled and a stand of mature trees cleared.

To make up for the lost acreage, the school wants to push the boundaries of the preserve south and west, to an area now occupied by the school’s organic garden, a manicured lawn and part of a sculpture garden.


For a school still stinging from criticism over an expansion plan that called for relocating the county fair to disappearing wetlands, the move has again raised questions over its green ethos.

It’s not a fair trade at all.

FIU organic garden manager Joshua Munoz

“They say they’re not building on top of [the pineland]. But you don’t have to build on top of something to affect it,” said student Joshua Munoz, who manages the nearby organic garden and helped start a Facebook page and petition that has collected about 7,000 signatures. “It’s not a fair trade at all.”

Students say the swap would actually shrink the size of the 13-acre preserve that is widely used by the university’s agriculture and ecology students. They also question why administrators, who plan to ask the Board of Trustees to approve the plans Friday, are moving so quickly.

But administrators say the savings from the new plans will help pay for maintaining the preserve and the pineland, which has never undergone a prescribed fire, a key ingredient to saving the lost forest that once covered much of South Florida’s high ground between North Miami Beach and Florida City.

“This will give us the dollars to do a better job of managing and improving what we have and I really believe we’ll end up with something that is much better,” said Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell.

I really believe we’ll end up with something that is much better.

FIU Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell

Created in 1978 just six years after the university was founded, the nature preserve was intended to embrace “the university’s core value to be ‘responsible stewards of the environment,’” according to FIU’s website. The preserve serves as a lab for more than 25 courses in nine different departments and includes three different South Florida ecosystems: hardwood hammock, wetlands and endangered rock pineland.

More a patch than a forest, the pineland serves as an important example of the state’s lost wildlands that provide habitat to a shrinking number of endangered animals.

The last largest tract sits near Zoo Miami, where two years ago the University of Miami sold a piece to a Palm Beach County developer who wants to build a shopping center anchored by a Walmart superstore. The plans drew repeated protests from neighbors and environmentalists and helped launch the Miami Pine Rocklands Association. Less than 2 percent of the forest now remains outside Everglades National Park.

To survive, pineland needs the kind of periodic burning that naturally occurred in spring as thunderstorms rolled in with South Florida’s wet season. In its recovery plan for the pineland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends regular prescribed fires.

But until it applied for a permit in January, FIU had never conducted a prescribed fire, said Florida Forest Service area supervisor Gary Lewis.

“I’m about the only one besides the National Park that does prescribed burning in Miami-Dade and I’ve never burned that,” said Lewis, who has been urging the school to conduct a burn for the last two years.

Jessell blamed the poor management of the pineland on a lack of money.

$1.3 millionMoney saved by building fields on nature preserve instead rather than parking lot

The new plan will save about $1.3 million in construction, he said. That will allow the school to spend $300,000 to construct new wetlands, which were part of design plans created in 2003 but were never fully executed. Administrators also plan to ask trustees for a $2 million endowment that would provide $80,000 a year to the preserve for upkeep, Jessell said.

In addition to costs, Jessell said the earlier plan that staggered the fields didn’t meet the school’s needs. It also called for tearing up the nearby road and trucking environmentally damaging material to a landfill. The plan also raised safety concerns: he said that students would have to cross Southwest 17th Street and fields would be located right next to it. When the board of trustees approved the fields in December, Jessell said they also authorized administrators to look for cheaper alternatives.

“So we’re going to add resources to assist in,” maintaining the preserve, he said. “A few years from now, people will look at this and say this is the absolute correct decision.”

But students and plant biologists say recreating a natural habitat south of the preserve makes little sense. Munoz argues that with the organic garden included in the new boundary, natural areas will amount to less than what exists now. Plowing over the area also wastes efforts begun in 2010, and funded in part from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant, to clear invasive plants near the pond.

Creating a natural habitat is also a lengthy, high maintenance process, said botanist Roger Hammer.

To blow away a preserve and then try to recreate one elsewhere, it’s wasted money.

Botanist Roger Hammer

“It’s the disturbed soils that are your biggest enemy,” he said.

Managers would have to constantly watch for invasive grasses. New wild areas would also take decades to mature and become established, he said. Once the pineland is burned, the school may also discover that over decades of neglect it shrunk and was actually bigger than the small patch now located in the center of the hammock.

“To blow away a preserve and then try to recreate one elsewhere, it’s wasted money,” Hammer said. “It’s not like you can just plant it and walk away. What they really need to do is get in there and burn to see what they’ve really got. It’s amazing when you reintroduce fire how much stuff is lying dormant just waiting.”

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