Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: UM sale of rare forest violates example set by pioneering conservationist Marta Weeks-Wulf

A line in her trailblazer biography immediately catches my eye: Marta Weeks-Wulf, whom I’m about to meet, was the first woman to lead the Board of Trustees at the University of Miami, a member and patron since 1983.

When I bring this up, the 84-year-old philanthropist and conservationist, sitting across the table in a cheerful orange shirt, tells me she hasn’t been active on the board for several years.

Maybe this at least partly explains the unexplainable: UM’s controversial sale of endangered pine rockland to a Palm Beach County developer who plans to add to an overdeveloped stretch of South Miami-Dade — not far from where we are now in lush Palmetto Bay — 900 apartments, a Walmart and other commercial ventures.

The university made $22.1 million but lost a considerable amount of respect from outraged alumni, environmentalists and ordinary folks who care about the land. The deal is still under scrutiny, with new inquiries by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about endangered flowers that might grow there.

“I read something about it,” Weeks-Wulf says, “but I don’t recall the details.”

I take the diplomatic cue to change the sour subject. I’m here, after all, to meet this extraordinary woman and celebrate her latest philanthropy — one of many gifts she’s made to the arts, education and the cause of environmental conservation.

In these boom times, Weeks-Wulf could have made millions on the sale of her estate off of Old Cutler Road — a sturdy, ground-breaking, energy-efficient house built in 1982 and on 8.7 acres of environmentally endangered land that she and her late husband, petroleum geologist L. Austin Weeks, lovingly maintained for decades.

But instead of selling, the retired and remarried patron made a rare decision.

She gave away the 10,500-square-foot house and all of the surrounding land to one of her neighbors — the Deering Estate Foundation, stewards of the Deering Estate at Cutler, an environmental, archaeological and historical preserve and home to seven native Florida habitats.

Weeks-Wulf’s land across the street from Deering is geological treasure: endangered pristine native tropical hardwood hammock. The plan is to establish there a cultural and ecological field-study station and perhaps use the home to host world-renowned scientists.

It took “time and talent” to preserve the Weeks’ land, says Deering director Jennifer Tisthammer, adding that when she was a student at Florida International University, she studied the Weeks’ conservation efforts as an example of “a best practice.”

For Weeks-Wulf, whose decision to donate her home was so organic that she finds no words to explain how it evolved, the gesture may be par for the course. It is another line in the accomplished résumé of a Stanford graduate born in Buenos Aires to a family of American geologists, a world traveler ordained as an Episcopal priest at 62, and author of Our Lord Was Baptized, You Know: Reflections on a Spiritual Adventure, a humorous and inspirational autobiography on living a unique, adventurous life.

But with her gift, she raises the bar on philanthropy and sends a strong message — a plea, really — to a region that worships real-estate profiteering: Love the land.

Save what little of it is left in its natural state.