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Five years ago, the only athletic activity on Virginia Key was getting buzzed at Jimbo's and bowling bocce balls with beach bums. Ever since the island's 82-acre park reopened in 2008, however, Miami cyclists have turned the mounds of dredge detritus into a mountain-biker's mecca. Miles of trails now wind their way through the trees. The park recently hosted its first triathlon.
But the same conservation policies that have saved the park are now threatening to kill its buzz. Bikers worry that the City of Miami's plan to cut down invasive Australian pines could leave the island denuded and devoid of shady trails.
"We are totally in favor of restoration," says Miriam Merino, a real-estate agent who has been kayaking and biking on the key since 1983. "But with so many areas already deforested, why do they want to deforest another one right just when it's becoming popular?"
The city, though, counters that the trees will be replaced and the island will be healthier long-term. "Yes, there will be a momentary displacement of shade and tree life within this zone, but within a very short amount of time, you will have a very nice environment," says Gary Milano, a former Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources (DERM) official now consulting on the project.
Evolution has never come easily on Virginia Key. The island's history has more twists and turns than its mazy mangrove patches. It was born when a hurricane carved it from a larger island in the mid-1800s. The key later became a refuge for black Miamians cruelly banned from other beaches by segregation. And when the city shuttered the park in 1982, the island filled with druggies, trash dumps, and Port of Miami dredge waste.
When the park reopened in 2008, conservationists claimed victory. But progress has been start-and-stop ever since. Months of community meetings culminated in an ambitious master plan, which city commissioners approved in 2010. Barely a year later, however, French construction company Bouygues dumped fill from the port tunnel onto the island's sensitive wetlands. Forty protected mangroves were killed when a piece of equipment became entangled in their roots.
Meanwhile, mountain bikers were busy transforming the key in more positive ways. With the city's permission, the Virginia Key Bicycle Club (VKBC) built miles of trails beneath the shady Australian pines.
Last month, however, city officials told bikers there were finally enough funds to begin removing the invasive trees. Merino felt betrayed. She admits the master plan calls for replacing exotic species with native ones, but points to ugly clearings on the island where the city removed plants but didn't replace them.
"What the city has done in the past has been like shaving a lit bit of your hair here and there, without letting it grow back in. All of a sudden, your head is full of holes," she says. "What we want is for the city to use the money to replant what has been removed already and not to leave more barren land."
Merino worries that chopping down the pines will ruin trails and kill the key's burgeoning mountain-biking movement. "Other bikers don't want to complain because they are afraid they will lose the trails altogether," she says. "They are totally scared to speak."
Tom Siddons, president of VKBC, says the issue has split bikers. "If you spoke to ten different group members, you'd probably get ten different views on it," he says. "So we're remaining neutral as a group."
But those in charge of restoration say critics can't see the forest for the trees. "Some of the bikers are not too happy about things, but North Point will be better for them in the long run," Milano says. "Trust me. It really does work. It's not going to look like a bomb site."