UM: Environmental issues to be addressed at Village site

This is part two of a three-part in-depth report on South Campus. Parts 1 and 3 may be found with the remainder of the News section.

For three years, the University of Miami has been in the planning stages of a residential and educational community called the South Campus Village. Now they are focusing on plans for preservation and management of a rare forest located on the property, which contains two endangered plant species.

The housing project is planned to be constructed on 136 acres of land near the Miami MetroZoo. Within those acres resides a Pine Rockland forest, home to the endangered deltoid spurge and tiny polygala, as well as other rare plant species.

To protect these species, the university is collaborating with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, a local professional environmental conservation group, and Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) to formulate a short and long-term eco-friendly plan.

“We wanted to demonstrate that you could protect the environment and build a town,” President Donna E. Shalala told the student Senate at one of their weekly meetings on Oct. 4. “You can be sure we are going to be hyper-sensitive to the environment.”

The plan involves the ecological expertise of many professionals, including law professor Pamela Krauss, who is a consultant for the project. Krauss, a botanist and UM alumna, has also been a resource for the student group Greenpeace, which was initially concerned about the environmental ramifications of the project and the future of the forest.

“I think Pam has been an excellent help [because] she has worked in environmental law before teaching,” said Kiah Barrette, vice president of UM Greenpeace.

Barrette said that the fact that the university owns the land is a step in the right direction, adding that they have the resources to restore the land.

UM’s concerns regarding the Pine Rockland forest are based on the fragile nature of its ecosystem, which prevents replanting the forest.

An important part of its ecosystem is limestone. Contrary to other plants, the endemic plant species in this forest grow on limestone, therefore complicating and preventing replanting as a preservation solution.

Pine trees are also necessary to the plant species because their branches create an understory essential to plants’ survival.

Another point of sensitivity for the plant species is elevation – even a slight change can be detrimental.

As a result of these complicating factors, UM is seeking to preserve 43 acres of land where the forest is located. To ensure they would provide the proper care, the university sought out to work with DERM.

“We are working with [DERM] every step of the way with government oversight”, said Sarah Artecona, vice president for media and community relations. “They will not allow us to build on an area sensitive in nature and that is a check and balance to the university.”

The rare Pine Rockland forests are primarily found in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, including the Everglades. They are also a few locations in the Caribbean.

Although Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens and DERM are currently working on a preservation and management plan, there are still three issues regarding the 43-acre lot and the surrounding area.

The first problem is the invasion of exotic plants in the forest. The plant species in the forest not only have a fragile ecosystem, but are fragile themselves.

Another area for concern is the necessary fires that plant species in the Pine Rockland forest need for survival. This created the question as to how to set well-managed fires needed for their survival in a small area bordering the residential community of South Campus Village.

“It is an issue to burn such a small area for the safety issue,” said Terri Hood, assistant director of the Ecosystem Science and Policy department. “The nice outcome of this project is the management is using it as a testing ground as to how to manage a small forest.”

However, Cynthia Guerra, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said this practice might make residents uncomfortable, as the fires necessary for preserving the forest will be burned in close proximity to their homes.

“Once they build all the houses those people won’t be sitting idly by,” Guerra said. “They’ll call their legislators and complain.”

Guerra said the Tropical Audubon Society attended a public hearing dealing with this in the hope of changing UM’s plans to develop the land. She suggested the university sell their property to Miami-Dade County so the county can sell or donate the land to an organization willing to preserve all 136 acres.

“[UM] has a unique opportunity to turn their land into a natural lab,” Guerra said. “They can do something so much more visionary.”

The last problem for the management and preservation of the forest is the supervision of a neighboring piece of land owed by the Miami MetroZoo. Left on its own, invading vines are able to grow into the area owned by the university, leaving possible tension between the endangered plant species and the non-native vines.

Barrette, of Greenpeace, does not believe problems tension will arise in different area.

“There should not be any tension between the student groups and the university,” she said. “The university is doing everything it can.”

Areas of Concern
– Invading exotics, such as vines, pose a great danger to the lives of the rare plants. Growing an average of a few feet per day along the forest understory and canopy, vines impede natural fire setting.

– The Pine Rockland forest has fallen victim to naturally occurring fires over their course of existence, and the plants that remain in the forest have evolved to become resistant to fires. Some are so adapted that they need fire as part of their reproduction cycle.

– The 43 acres the university owns and the land Miami MetroZoo owns have not been properly maintained. The concern is if the university puts forth effort, time, management and money to restore the forest, it may be circumvented by the improper care of the bordering land.

Fabiola Stewart may be contacted at

BUILDING SOUTH PART 1 : UM: New faculty housing community construction planned to begin in 2010 or 2011

BUILDING SOUTH PART 3 : Permit will allow building on land with rare plants