In the middle of the concrete jungle of the Florida International University campus, there’s a unique refuge. It’s a giant green space made up of some 450 plant and animal species, where students and faculty go to get their hands dirty, conduct research, learn, and relax.
But that urban oasis, the FIU Nature Preserve, is in jeopardy. Last week, the university announced plans to mow over the northern part of the preserve to construct two recreation and practice football fields. Students, faculty, and friends of the preserve swiftly condemned the plan and circulated a petition that has received more than 7,000 signatures in five days.
“Unfortunately, I think this is another symbol of what is often the story in Florida,” says John Parker, FIU emeritus professor of environmental science and chemistry. “When something needs to be developed, whether a soccer field or new shopping mall, the environmental spaces tend to get gobbled up.”
In an email blast to students, FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said the school would add additional acreage on the south and west sides of the preserve, between a road and a baseball field, to make up for lost space. He argued the move is the only viable solution to a longstanding need for more athletic fields.
"We have considered all possible sites on campus," Rosenberg wrote. "We also talked to the Miami-Dade County Parks Department about sharing fields in Tamiami Park. The park option proved not feasible due to high cost and the fact that such use would require approval by the Miami-Dade County Commission and voter referendum."
Though many of the trees and plants in the preserve may be hundreds of years old, its history as an officially designated campus space dates to 1977. That year, Parker was teaching an environmental science course that explored, among other topics, the significance of the Everglades and its fragile ecosystem. As part of an assignment, two students drafted a proposal to establish a preserve that could represent the Everglades right on campus.
Within three years, the 13-acre preserve was established. The preserve contains three ecosystems – tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, and pine rocklands — the last is one of the most endangered habitats in the world. Some 36 courses use the preserve to teach classes, and many others use it for research and volunteer activities.
“You can learn about these things in books, but when students actually do stuff within the preserve, it’s transformative,” Parker says. “You walk on a trail there and really feel you’re in the Everglades. There’s an upper and mid canopy, all types of trees, ferns on the ground. It’s truly like a walk in a national park.”
For 30 years, as the FIU campus expanded, Parker says the preserve was constantly threatened by development. But since 2010, it has received an influx of cash and, more recently, even a jogging path around its perimeter, which seemed to suggest it may finally be fully protected.
“I breathed a sigh of relief when that happened,” Parker says, “because I thought they were no longer going to try to put buildings or a frat house there.”
But last week, at an FIU sustainability committee meeting, FIU Chief Financial Officer Kenneth A. Jessell gave a presentation on the proposal, saying the decision had already been made. Faculty, students, and other staff, including Parker, were shocked. The proposed new acres of the preserve contain a functioning organic garden.
“It was the first I’d heard of anything,” Parker says, "and it was like it was a done deal."
Joshua Muñoz-Jiménez, the preserve’s organic garden manager, quickly began organizing against the plan. He created a petition, "Preserve Our FIU! #SaveItDontPaveIt," which has received more than 7,000 signatures from faculty, staff, students, and alumni. And he is circulating dozens of publicly available documents that lay out detailed plans for the new fields. The next discussion of the plan will occur March 8. "We want an actual plan that answers the overwhelming response/concern of students and faculty," Muñoz-Jiménez says.
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Rosenberg has pushed back, arguing in his email to students that the university is committed to the environment but has been struggling for more than a decade to find adequate space for athletic fields for a growing student body. In the March 2 email — subject: "Building for the Future" — he wrote that the lack of fields puts FIU “at a competitive disadvantage in [the] conference.”
Parker argues that the preserve “doesn’t sound like the right place” for the new fields. But for environmentalists and lovers of the preserve, he says there may be a small light at the end of the tunnel: Along with the plans, the university has said it’s willing to provide funds to build a viable wetlands in the new preserve area.
FIU says it will also use the funds to manage and improve the preserve — a job that's always been done by student and faculty volunteers, Parker says.
“It’s really crucial the university do more to fund the preservation and management of the preserve,” he says. “They haven’t done much in the last 30 years. That job has been ours.”