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Rare Florida Forest to be Bulldozed and Turned into Wal-Mart

Jul 14, 2014 12:36 PM EDT

A plot of Miami-Dade forest home to rare plants and endangered species is to be torn down to make way for a Wal-Mart, a move that's causing alarm among some environmentalists.

The University of Miami (UM) sold 88 acres of pine rockland to Ram, a Palm Beach County-based developer planning a 185,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, along with an LA Fitness, Chik-fil-A, Chili's and 900 apartments.

Though the company agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve, it's not nearly big enough to hold the vast number of species inhabiting the area.

"You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM," attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, told the Miami Herald.

The site was chosen because it provides a "unique chance to create ... a place where people can easily walk from the neighborhood to shops and elsewhere," explained Ram CEO Casey Cummings.

Originally part of the 2,100-acre Richmond Naval Air Station, the land houses rare animal species, including the bald eagle, indigo snake and Florida bonneted bat, which was given federal protection last year.

In addition, about 40 plant species grow only in pine rocklands, which once ran from Homestead north to the Miami River. The largest remaining stretch of rockland, about 19,000 acres, is in Everglades National Park.

Federal officials are closely watching the project - especially since two rare butterflies living in the pre-developed land will possibly receive protection this summer. However, they are limited in their ability to take action. For example, sanctions can only be issued if endangered animals are killed during the building process.

"Our listed plants are very rare, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that so little habitat remains. So we certainly place a great value on these species' conservation," said Craig W. Aubrey, South Florida field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Only two percent of the vast savannah that used to cover South Florida is still standing. UM told the Herald it is committed to protecting the forests and helped execute plans for the preserve, but would not respond to other questions about development.

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