Environmentalists Plan Protest Against Walmart, Theme Park Threatening Endangered Pine Rocklands

The fight over an endangered patch of native pine rocklands has sparked a planned rally at the site of the two highly controversial development projects -- a proposed Walmart and the theme park Miami Wilds.

"We'll do two for the price of one," says Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, which is organizing the event.

See also: Developer to Submit Habitat Conservation Plan for Controversial Walmart Project

Called Rally for the Rocklands, the event is slated to begin at 2 p.m. in the Zoo Miami parking lot. Protesters will march along the bike path adjacent to the endangered habitat to the site of a proposed Walmart development. Then they'll head to the nearby site of the proposed Miami Wilds theme park.

Over the past several months, both projects have generated ire from conservationists because of the endangered status of both the pine rocklands habitat and several animal and plant species found exclusively within it.

In July, it was announced that the University of Miami had sold 88 acres to Ram, a developer who hopes to locate a Walmart in a development called Coral Reef Commons, which would also include 408 apartments and LA Fitness, Chick-fil-A, and Chili's locations.

Last fall, outcry over the potential habitat destruction from that project was amplified when it emerged that Miami-Dade County was also in talks with Fox for a $930 million Orlando-style amusement park, called Miami Wilds, in the same area. In addition to a 70-acre amusement park, the development would also include a water park, a 400-room hotel, restaurants, and a movie theater.

But both Coral Reef Commons and Miami Wilds have been stalled because of environmental concerns. In November, Ram, the Coral Reef Commons developer, met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials and agreed to submit a habitat conservation plan, which would have to prove that the project would provide a net benefit to the endangered species before it could be approved. Recently, federal officials also said that Miami Wilds would be subject to a comprehensive U.S. Fish and Wildlife review before it could go forward.

"The momentum is in our favor," Schwartz says. On the rally's Facebook page, more than 600 people have said they plan to attend the event. See that page for more information.

A Walmart spokeswoman says the company expects Ram to "continue cooperating" with federal authorities. Here's a statement from the company:

"As a tenant of Ram Realty Service's Coral Reef Commons project, Walmart is pleased Ram is working with US Fish & Wildlife Service to conduct a detailed environmental survey of the land. We signed on to this project because we were excited about the opportunity to serve the community while preserving a rich and unique nature preserve for generations. These efforts are aligned with Walmart's work with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to protect priority lands across the country through the Acres for America project."

Ram, meanwhile, says environmentalists are wrong about the site:

Environmentalists opposing the development of the site have continuously misunderstood the facts and the current condition of the property.

The notion that the Coral Reef Commons site is a pristine forest is erroneous. Over the last 70 years the site has been used for military purposes, a medical research facility, commercial buildings, residential buildings, enclosures for animals, an incinerator and blimp bays. As such, the area is severely degraded and will continue to deteriorate unless significant resources and consistent management efforts are put into place.

The best prospect for regaining the natural environment is a comprehensive restoration plan such as the one Ram Realty Services is developing with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under this plan, almost 40 percent of our property will be restored to its natural native state, set aside and maintained as a natural preserve in perpetuity - a standard never previously achieved in the region.

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Trevor Bach