MIAMI, July 14 (UPI) -- A significant chunk of a rare endangered forest in South Florida, not far from Miami, is set to be cleared to make way for a new Walmart. As expected, environmentalists aren't thrilled.
The forest is pine rockland, an endangered ecosystem in Miami-Dade County that is home to several unique species of plants, birds, insects and other animals. And the Walmart is not alone. Alongside the 158,000-square-foot box store will appear an LA Fitness center, Chik-fil-A and Chili's restaurants, some 900 apartments, as well as other yet-to-be-named retailers.
The 88 acres of forest in question were previously owned by the University of Miami, but the sizable plot was recently sold to a Palm Beach County developer. The developer, Ram Realty Services, was only granted permission to construct the mixed-use development after it agreed to set aside 40 acres as a preserve.
But conservationists say that's too little too late.
"You wonder how things end up being endangered?" asked Dennis Olle, attorney and board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly. "This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM."
Local officials like county biologist John Tim Joyner tend to agree, though he says there's nothing that could have been done differently under the law.
"I agree more could have been preserved. But what they preserved complied with the code," Joyner said. "And that was a big selling point. [UM was] not managing the land, and we had no way to get them to manage the land."
By all accounts, the developers seemed to have gotten their plans OKd in just the nick of time. Wildlife officials and local conservationists say they've spotted a rare flowering herb outside the designated preserve as well as several species of rare butterflies -- including the Bartram's hairstreak, which is expected to added to the endangered species list later this summer. The protections that come with such a designation likely would have severely curtailed any development plans.
"We're going to have bona fide listed species there," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Salvato. "And if the project were taking place a few years from now, it would be open and shut. We've got people photographing Bartram's hairstreak on the very terra firma they're going to bulldoze."
For now, all federal officials can do is monitor the situation from a distance.