Miami Wilds, the not-so-wild water park interrupting critical habitat, faces community opposition

Protestors walk to the front of Zoo Miami to rally against the development of Miami WIlds on the pine rocklands on Nov. 4, 2023. Photo credit: Jenny Jacoby

A group of protestors stood at the entrance of the University of Miami, demanding the UM Board of Trustees buy back the 88 acres of pine rockland forests sold to developers for $22 million. That was in 2015.

The forest was eventually bulldozed to make room for a Walmart.

Eight years later, zoo employees, environmental groups and citizens of all ages gathered outside Zoo Miami, protesting again to save the pine rocklands. This time, they say they won’t lose.

“I have kept a sign from the [Walmart] construction site in my room for six years. I look at it when I want to remember what happens when we lose,” said Zachariah Cosner, a UM graduate and organizer of the Let Them Thrive Rally held on Nov. 4, 2023.

Hundreds turned out on the gloomy Saturday morning in support of the critical habitat and the at least four federally listed endangered species that call the forest home. Environmentalists, including 40-year Zoo Miami employee Ron Magill, believe the development of the Miami Wilds theme park would severely threaten the rare ecosystem if approved by county commissioners on Dec. 12.

“When I heard that they want to build this property into a waterfront and it was deemed a critical habitat for endangered species, I said, we can’t do that. It totally goes counter to what we stand for in the zoo,” Magill said.

The water park, 17 years in the making, is slated to take over 27.5 acres more of pine rocklands sitting on county land that currently serves as a free parking lot for Zoo Miami. Less than 2% of the scarce habitat remains outside of the Everglades National Park.

“These are truly irreplaceable resources. There are people that travel the Earth to see the biodiversity that we have right here. So to see the county considering throwing that away for a development that can be built anywhere? It’s really shocking,” said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The National Park Service initially released the parcel of land to Miami-Dade county for the water park in a 2006 referendum, on the condition that the land was not environmentally sensitive.

“Now, 17 years later, we know it’s environmentally sensitive and that’s technically a violation of that referendum.” Lauren Jonaitis, senior conservation director of the Tropical Audubon Society said.

Protestors hold up signs they made at the ReWild Miami Let Them Thrive rally against the development of Miami WIlds on the pine rocklands on Nov. 4, 2023.
Protestors hold up signs they made at the ReWild Miami Let Them Thrive rally against the development of Miami WIlds on the pine rocklands on Nov. 4, 2023. Photo credit: Jenny Jacoby

The group is currently suing Miami-Dade County over the violation, claiming the environmental value of the pine rocklands should force the county to forfeit the plan entirely.

The pine rocklands entered the spotlight following the rediscovery of the previously thought-to-be extinct Miami tiger beetle in 2007. The beetle received endangered species status with a critical habitat designation in May 2023, disrupting developer plans.

Despite the beetle’s discovery, the water park and corresponding hotel lease was approved by county commissioners in 2020. Problems ensued as a second lawsuit was filed against the National Parks Service for failing to conduct National Environmental Policy Act mandated environmental reviews of the property. NPS admitted to this wrongdoing.

Environmentalists believe that a proper investigation would reveal that a water park significantly impairs the success of the ecosystem.

“Based on how rare the species are here, the impacts of a brand new development could be really species ending for some of these like the Miami tiger beetle,” Bennet said.

Development would put a likely end to the controlled burns needed to make the habitat viable, and exposure to chlorine, from the pools, has the potential to generate noxious bacterial gas looming over the forest, explained community organizer Steven Leidner.

Most importantly, Miami Wilds stands in the way of the success of the Florida bonneted bat, a highly endangered species, that uses the empty parking lot at night to feed.

“This parking lot might be a parking lot by day, but by night is a very important foraging area for critically endangered species who need it to feed, and we’ve got to protect it for them,” Magill said.

The high activity level of the bonneted bats in the area was initially reported by a Florida Fish and Wildlife study. Once the lawsuit emerged, Miami Wilds park manager Paul Lambert conducted an independent study with Johnson Engineering that disputed the “high presence” of bonneted bats. The discrepancy has led to misgivings about how crucial the land is for the species that will need to be determined before construction is permitted.

While fighting the lawsuits, Miami Wilds has fallen behind on its commitments to the county, and is set to miss its Dec. 22 groundbreaking date. According to District 7 Commissioner Raquel Regalado, this is yet another reason to cancel it all together.

“They haven’t applied for a permit. They haven’t applied for zoning. They do not have a site plan, they owe us rent and they owe us attorneys fees. There’s a million legal reasons to kill the deal,” she said.

“We said either kill it or move it.”

Choosing neither, County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava recently pushed to delay the commissioners vote from September to December, so the county could investigate alternative sites.These may include the Homestead-Miami Speedway, whose owners have expressed interest in a water park, Regalado noted.

But, Lambert has no interest in moving his 300-job facility elsewhere.

“It is net-beneficial for the zoo to have the water park there. Having multiple gates together adds more business for everyone,” Lambert said in an interview with CBS Miami on Nov. 3 2023.

The December vote will allow commissioners to revisit the issue and force another decision pitting development against the environment on the county.

Cosner, left defeated after the construction of Walmart five years ago, feels this outcome will be different. He believes the pine rocklands are not only part of Miami’s heritage, but a representation of the county itself and that they have no choice but to save it.

“What is a pine rockland?” Cosner asked.

“It is the coming together of the species of temperate North America and the species of tropical Caribbean in a novel context that forms its own identity. And, if we cannot save this forest, how are we going to save ourselves?”