Ahead of county vote on Zoo Miami water park, conservationists fear habitat loss

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – A controversial vote is coming up next Tuesday before the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners on whether to approve a new lease to build a water theme park right next to Zoo Miami, abutting land conservationists say is a critically important biodiversity hotspot.

It’s a native ecosystem so endangered, there’s barely any of it left anywhere else in the world.

Deep in the heart of one of the few remaining forests of pine rockland left in Miami-Dade County, an elusive gopher tortoise appears out of its burrow and cautiously mugs for a Local 10 News camera before it gets spooked. The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species that plays a key role in maintaining the critical habitat.

“They’re the most important pollinator because they eat so many different plants,” said Joy Klein, with the Miami-Dade Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). “And deposit the seeds around the pine are often that they’re probably the most important seed disperser on the pine rockland.”

This native farmer of the pine rocklands is threatened so the tortoise now protected by the state. Their numbers are dwindling because their only home is almost completely gone.

Janet Gil is the director of Miami-Dade’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, a conservation effort launched in the 1990s whereby the county buys up sensitive parcels critical to maintaining balance to our natural backyard and resiliency.

“(The pine rockland) is so endangered on a global scale that it’s on the brink of extinction,” said Gil. “So when you think about that, it’s a whole habitat that’s going to just be gone from the planet.”

The pinerock lands is one of five ecosystems the county targets for restoration and preservation.

“And we’re here and we’re charged with protecting it,” she said. “And it’s such an uphill battle, that sometimes I feel like, you know, are we going to lose?”

Gil’s fears are well founded.

Historically, there used to be over 180,000 acres of it. Lush slash pine forests growing on beds of oolite, ancient coral reefs, home to over 400 native plant species and dozens of native animals, many now endangered.

As Miami-Dade County grew, the forests and the animals vanished.

“We now have less than 1.5% outside of Everglades National Park,” said Klein. “So what are we left with? A developed Miami-Dade County but very little pine rockland.”

Scientists are only now beginning to truly understand the importance of this habitat and the vital strands it weaves in the web of life.

“This is one of our native saw palmettos, which the berries have been found to treat prostate (cancer),” said Klein. “So this is a just a regular plant that was everywhere that suddenly they found of medical use for.”

And there are still many mysteries there that are left to be discovered, so protecting the remaining fragments left in the urban landscape of Miami-Dade has never been more urgent.

The majority of our pine rocklands are found in the Florida Everglades, about 20,000 acres of them, but they’re much lower in elevation and may soon be underwater due to sea level rise.

That’s why the elevated urban pine rocklands are so important to the overall survival of the habitat. If they disappear, the pine rocklands will be gone forever.

“So really, these urban preserves that eel is managing right now are going to be the last vestiges of this,” said Gil.

It is the most biodiverse habitat in South Florida, with endemic flora and fauna that can be found nowhere else in the world. The Florida panther used to be the apex predator there, until it was pushed out.

It’s not just the gopher tortoise facing the same fate, so is the endangered Miami tiger beetle and the Florida bonneted bat.

“Which is a very large bat and it needs large open areas to hunt and forage,” said Klein. “And as we urbanize these areas, there aren’t the big open areas as large bat needs to fly.

Conservationists say every single one of these species of plants and animals are essential to life on our planet as we know it.

“Once they’re gone, you can’t get that back,” said Gil. “Extinction is a very final word for us.”

Added Lisa Spadafina, Director of Miami-Dade DERM: “What people don’t realize is that all of these native habitats play a role in the full resilience of the county all the way from the Everglades all the way to the bay.”

Luca Martinez, an 18-year-old local wildlife photographer, is one of many local conservationists fighting to protect the fleeting environment.

“How can we continue to put a price tag on biodiversity, history and the potential for scientific discovery?” asked Martinez.

Gil says the threat of losing our pine rocklands should concern us all.

“Even if you don’t care about it from your back door, it is an ecosystem that will go away,” she said. “It should matter. It’s something that your children will never get to see if you don’t protect it.”

To be clear, developers of the proposed $47 million Miami Wilds say they intend to build the water park right on Zoo Miami property that currently is mostly a paved parking lot, and say the abutting pine rockland forest will not be impacted.

But environmentalists push back and say that parking lot is in fact itself a key part of the ecosystem for the endangered bonneted bat that feed when the sun goes down.

If you’d like to learn more about pine rocklands or the Miami-Dade EEL program, visit its website.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.