Miami-Dade Commission should not betray our environmental legacy by destroying pine rocklands

Miami-Dade County restored overgrown pine rockland at Larry and Penny Thompson Park.
Miami-Dade County restored overgrown pine rockland at Larry and Penny Thompson Park. Miami Herald Staff

At home and in our schools, we strive to teach our children to be good stewards of the Earth. How then do we justify that our County’s adult leaders are party to the destruction of one of the last natural sanctuaries in South Florida, that more than 20 endangered and threatened plants and animals depend upon for survival?

Since 1984, Miami-Dade County has espoused multiple protections for rare habitats and endangered species in its ordinances and policies. Now, the county has the opportunity to make good on these intentions by 1) disallowing the destruction of critical habitat for a public school and a connector road to the school and 2) ending negotiations to lease a large portion of county-owned, environmentally sensitive lands for a large-scale amusement park. These combined actions will save over 145 acres of precious pine rockland habitat.

This opportunity lies in the Richmond Pine Rocklands, the largest remaining tract of globally imperiled pine rockland habitat, unique to Miami-Dade and parts of the Keys. Less than 2 percent of this habitat remains outside of Everglades National Park. The Richmond Pine Rocklands harbor more than 15 endemic plant species found nowhere else in the world, two federally endangered insect species, one federally endangered mammal and many other unique organisms.

The most recent assault to the Richmond parcel is Coral Reef Commons — a large-scale mixed-use residential and retail development that will eliminate more than 87 acres of precious habitat. The 900 residential housing units and extensive retail, to include a Walmart, already beg the question of how they plan to manage prescribed burns needed to maintain the onsite pine rockland preserves. There also is a parcel on the site set aside for a public school and library, as required by the large size of development. This land has been declared critical habitat for two endangered butterfly species, the Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak and Florida leafwing, and therefore is ineligible for this purpose, as Miami-Dade County’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan policy specifically disallows the destruction of habitat for endangered species for public schools. Yet, the county has recently issued a tree-clearing permit to pave the way for a road to the proposed school. A road that undermines the habitat value of the preserve it bisects and that is wholly unnecessary.

Miami-Dade County is one of several property owners in possession of large acreage within the Richmond Pine Rocklands, including Larry and Penny Thompson Park and Zoo Miami, both of which contain vibrant pine rocklands that have been restored and are maintained with care. This apparent care for the habitat only extends so far, as the county proposes to lease approximately 130 acres of land adjacent to Zoo Miami to a developer who plans a large-scale, amusement park on the site, ironically to be named Miami Wilds. The attraction? Tourism dollars and service industry jobs with average annual salaries well below the county’s already terrible mean household incomes.

The Richmond Pine Rockland tract is a global and state treasure, a sanctuary for thriving rare and imperiled species. If we continue to develop sections of the tract then we consciously destroy the living jewels: a globally imperiled ecosystem, endemic plants and endemic animals.

Miami-Dade County commissioners have the chance to demonstrate leadership and stewardship. They should reject the destruction of vibrant flora and fauna at the expense of overcrowded communities and in pursuit of low-paying jobs. They should uphold existing environmental protections, limit the devastation to be wrought by Coral Reef Commons and put an end to the negotiations to lease county-owned lands.

Consider an alternative, achievable future, a paradigm shift through education, objective environmental economics and humility. Keystone programs like the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Florida Forever Act, and Miami-Dade County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program strive to maintain and protect natural ecosystems for “the organisms” and “the people.”

We can develop sustainably and coexist with South Florida’s fabulous flora and fauna. Miami’s population continues to grow and people need places to live, shop, and work, but not at the expense of Miami pine rockland habitat.

Jaeson Clayborn, Ph.D., is president of the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.