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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

The Debate Over Richmond Pine Rockland

Jessica Meszaros

Protesters gathered at the Zoo Miami parking lot this past weekend to rally against development on Richmond Pine Rockland that neighbors the zoo. It’s one of the last intact pine rocklands in Miami-Dade County.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
A rally to protest development on Richmond Pine Rockland took place at the Zoo Miami parking lot Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015.

RAM Realty Services purchased a piece of the rockland from the University of Miami this past July, with plans to build a Walmart, LA Fitness and apartments, among other things. Environmentalists say construction could damage a crucial ecosystem in South Florida.

Over 700 people gathered for Saturday's rally. Some sporting butterfly wings and others holding up hand-painted signs that read “construction crushes caterpillars” and “butterflies not bargains.”

Matthew Schwartz is the executive director of South Florida Wildlands Association. He also organized the rally. He says 350 plant species grow in the Richmond Pine Rockland. It also houses the Florida bonneted bat, the Florida leafwing butterfly, Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly, Miami tiger beetle and other species.

"So this is a biological treasure house. It's not a vacant lot to be turned into two new developments," says Schwartz.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
Over 700 protesters marched from the Zoo Miami parking lot to 152 street, spreading their message to passing cars.

He says that Miami’s rocklands originally covered 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County, and we're now down to less than two percent of that.

"If you look at the old maps of Miami-Dade, pine rocklands covered the entire spine of it in between Biscayne Bay and the Everglades," says Schwartz.

Sandy Koi is a local entomologist and a protester at the rally.

"The animals that I have worked with for the last 15 years live in the pine rocklands," says Koi. "This is an amazing ecosystem, and it means a lot to me, personally."

She says that these plants and animals have evolved together there over time, and to remove anything would mean to completely change that ecosystem.

"This is a very harsh environment," she said. "It's literally rocks and these plants grow in these rocks -- in this limestone -- and they are so well adapted to the limestone."

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
A close-up of the grounds on Richmond Pine Rockland.

Peter Cummings, chairman of RAM Realty Services, says the county and federal government together own 74 percent of the Richmond Pine Rockland. RAM now owns three percent after purchasing 137 acres from UM.

"We're preparing a habitat conservation plan and we plan to submit that habitat conservation plan March of this year," Cummings said.

He says that about 50 acres of the pine rockland his company owns will be preserved.

"Our intention is to get the property properly permitted and then to proceed and develop it in an environmentally sensitive fashion," he says.

But if Matthew Schwartz, the South Florida Wildlands Association director, had it his way, South Florida would develop vertically.

"We can have a sustainable green economy here in South Florida that doesn't need to destroy more habitat to create more sprawl to create more jobs," says Schwartz.

Cummings, however, says the Richmond land hasn’t been properly maintained in about 30 years.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
Burma reed is a non-native plant species that invades the land over time.

"The canopy becomes too thick, the proper amount of sunlight doesn't get down to the ground, you have these exotic species that take over," says Cummings.

Exotic species like Burma reed, an invasive plant that has taken over most of the Richmond Pine Rockland.

RAM Realty plans to preserve four large areas. Peter Cummings of RAM says the key to managing the preserved areas are prescribed burns, which they plan on doing once a year.

"The carrying capacity of that land right now is lower for these species than it will be once we're done," Cummings said.

He says building stores, restaurants and apartments on the rockland will generate property taxes and will also bring about 1,000 jobs on site.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WLRN
This is one of RAM Realty's four preserved sections in Richmond Pine Rockland. Exotic and invasive plant species have already been removed.

The company plans to start development in January of 2016.