Native forests need proper preservation from urban sprawl

Fun fact: did you know that the University of Miami owns hundreds of acres of land that once hosted a secret animal testing lab, Cold War-era CIA command and WWII Air Force Base?

Yes, the South Campus of the University, 136 acres surrounding Zoo Miami by SW 152nd Street, used to be all those things. But before that, it was a forest of pine trees, grown atop limestone ridges and outcroppings, with rare bats, insects, plants, panthers and eagles.

And now what’s left of that Pine Rockland forest is in danger.

The University acquired the land decades ago, but it never figured out how best to use the land. This summer, it came up with a time-tested Dade County solution: sell the land to developers building more urban sprawl.

In July, UM announced it had sold 88 acres to Ram Realty Services, a Palm Beach developer looking to build apartments, chain stores and a Wal-Mart. As if that wasn’t enough, plans are even being worked out for an amusement park. On the upside, Ram will have to maintain 40 acres as a nature preservation.

Consider the long-term picture of what that means. The Pine Rockland habitat—once covering 185,000 acres in Dade County from Homestead to the Miami River — will lose 2 percent of the remaining forest that lies outside Everglades and Big Cypress National Parks. To a Wal-Mart.

At the same time, concrete and asphalt development like this worsens all the problems endemic to sprawling sun belt cities: obesity and public health problems, lack of community, and growing dispersion of poverty and inequality.

It raises the original question of why the University would sell the land.

I’m all in favor of a growing endowment. And the reported $22 million they sold it for does sound nice. But in the middle of the $1.6 billion Momentum fundraising campaign, surely the land wasn’t burning a hole in our school’s pocket.

A spokeswoman from the University said in an email that “The University has always been committed to the protection and preservation of our community’s natural and historic resources.”

If this is true, it’s good that the university is keeping a separate strip of Pine Rockland, or as developers might see it, a great place for an access road. The Herald reported that President Shalala has been asking the county about ways to build the road, a potentially devastating update to the forest.

Both the University and developers should take a more realistic long-term perspective. Climate change is not looking to do South Florida any favors. There might not be very much land to develop in the future, nor will students want to attend partially submerged classes. 

Preserving wild spaces is one of the better methods of building resilient communities. Trees, green spaces and especially the limestone earth are particularly suited to absorbing water, and Dade County will need as much absorption as it can get. I’m no scientist, but I’d guess the forest serves that role better than a Wal-Mart would.

For preservationists fighting the “Battle of the Rocklands,” all is not lost. Federal authorities designated two more butterfly species as endangered this month, throwing more wrenches in the development plans. That should help for the time being until wildlife relocation efforts are finished. But the effort to save Dade County’s native forests cannot be left to butterflies versus bulldozers. It will take better foresight, care and restoration from all community members, especially the University of Miami.

Patrick Quinlan is a junior majoring in international studies and political science