Before European settlement, pine rockland was one of the dominant habitats in South Florida. Canopies of fire-resistant slash pines and dense thickets of Sabal palms grew atop the region’s Atlantic Coastal ridge, which extends from Palm Beach almost to the Florida Keys. The forest sheltered panthers, rare Atala butterflies, and a host of other species.
But now there’s not much of this kind of woodland left. Most of it was cut down early in the rush to develop South Florida. Pine rocklands, after all, exist only on high ground, which was the only type of land available for settlement when the city was young, before huge swathes of the Everglades were drained.
Today, less than 2 percent of the original pine rockland habitat remains in Miami-Dade County. Slash pine groves in Everglades National Park and The Keys make up most of the existing 811 square miles of habitat.
Although it might look like lame, shrubby land to the uninitiated passerby, this biome is home to the highest native plant biodiversity of any Florida ecosystem and is critical territory for two endangered plants: Florida Brickell bush and Carter’s small flowered flax. It’s also one of the rarest kinds of forest in the entire world.
The largest chunk of pine rockland outside any national park is the South Dade Richmond Pineland Complex, located between the Turnpike and the 825 expressway along 152nd street.
The University of Miami owned a large portion of the land until 2014, when it sold the land to Palm Beach-based Ram Group for $21 million. Ram’s plan for the site, called “Coral Reef Commons,” include leasing space out to a Walmart and an LA Fitness, plus the construction of 900 condos.
UM is also considering selling another tract of land to Ram right now.
But now all that’s standing between this tract of rare woodland and a new Walmart is an energized community of conservationists, and revelations that the development site was once used as an unlicensed dumping ground for nuclear waste.
Start and stop
The 136 acres of the Richmond Pine Rockland complex were once the south campus of the University of Miami, which the institution primarily used for research. Donated to the school after World War II, the land was originally a naval air force base. (Fun fact: It was the largest CIA station outside of the Washington area from the late 1960s through early 1970s and the Bay of Pigs operation was launched from there.)
Though The U intended to develop affordable faculty housing on the site as late as 2013, construction never got started, and in July 2014, 80 acres were sold to Ram.
Ram was ready to start transforming the woodland into a strip mall and apartment complex, but within two weeks of the purchase the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in. Citing danger to protected species, the agency stopped Ram’s bulldozers and forced it to come up with a conservation plan before continuing. Ram would have to spell out how it was going to manage the tracts of forest it planned to leave standing before construction could start.
But now Ram says it’s got a plan. It’s developing half the land it originally planned and instituting forestry conservation techniques for the stands of slash pine it won’t be tearing down. It’s even figured out a way to safely burn down parts of the forest without threatening the strip mall it wants to build. (Pine rocklands need regular burning to survive.)
But the Pine Rocklands complex was also the longtime home of The University of Miami Perrine Primate Center. That center’s improper disposal of irradiated primate carcasses and other “radioactive nucleotides” from animal testing triggered a lawsuit by the federal government in 2006.
Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, Hydrogen 3, and Carbon 14 were among the hazardous substances allegedly found in the soil by federal officials. The school hastily settled with the government, paying out some $400,000 for the cleanup. A 2010 technical report filed with the county’s Department of Environmental Resource Management pollution control office concluded that “the possibility exist that higher level waste could still be present (at the site) in intact containers.”
“From my investigation, I was able to hear from numerous Dade County sources that the settlement (about the nuclear waste) was not disclosed during the zoning process,” informs former investigative reporter Al Sunshine.
Sunshine is a longtime local news veteran, and one of the presidents of the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition. Though reports of the cleanup were filed with the county Department of Environmental Resources, Ram Development group’s spokesmen had no comment on the nuclear contamination, even though 900 condos are planned for the site.
Miami’s conservationist community showed up in force to present public testimony against the planned development at a Miami-Dade County Commission hearing on April 18. Present at the hearing was Tim Watson, local environmental activist and Chair of The University of Miami’s English Department. He thinks the development is shortsighted.
“Malls are going out of business all over the country. There are abandoned Walmart’s everywhere…what if Walmart finds that too many people are shopping online and shutters the store? Nobody else is going to move in there, it’s too far out west. This might end up a zombie Walmart, surrounded by acres of parking lots.”
Watson also has questions for the University, which gained some $21 million from the sale, but has not disclosed how the funds will be used.
“Developers think in the short term, I get that, but the University is in the business of educating people, of creating new knowledge, and new research, and passing that on. It hasn’t yet been explained how exactly we benefit from this sale,” he says.
UM defended its sale of the site back in September 2015, stating “the University of Miami is committed to the protection and preservation of our community’s natural and historic resources”
Though the public comment period is drawing to a close, and development of the habitat seems a near certainty, the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition will be hosting a “Save Florida’s Pine Rocklands” workshop at Deering Estate this coming Tuesday.