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Judge halts clearing of rare forest targeted for Wal-Mart

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Posted at 10:36 AM, Dec 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-09 10:36:45-05

MIAMI (AP) -- Bulldozers downing trees on a property targeted for a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center were ordered to stop work after a federal judge issued an emergency injunction sought by environmentalists fighting to save the vanishing forest.

The judge issued the injunction Friday, hours after the Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups sued to overturn a decision earlier this week that cleared the way for the mall, 900 apartments and a parking lot. The land near Zoo Miami had long been targeted for conservation and is part of what was once one of the largest tracks of pine rockland, a globally imperiled forest, outside Everglades National Park.

In her ruling, Judge Ursula Ungaro said the plaintiffs showed a likelihood of winning their case and that ongoing work could cause irreparable harm.

"We are elated," said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit with Tropical Audubon, the Miami Pine Rockland Coalition and the South Florida Wildlands Association. "The judge's order has given these plants and animals and the residents of this community an opportunity for their day in court, an opportunity to have justice upheld, and a fighting chance at survival."

The Miami Herald reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on a habitat conservation plan that cleared the way for the development. The project was first unveiled in 2014. A day after the federal agency okayed the plan, bulldozers began downing trees and plowing brush.

In approving the conservation plan, wildlife managers said the menagerie of plants and animals, some of which can be found only in pine rockland, have a better chance at surviving because the land had become overgrown and choked by invasive plants after the University of Miami, which was given the land by the U.S. government, failed to maintain it before selling it to Cummings for $22 million.

"You've minimized and mitigated impacts to the species and taking is not going to reduce survivability in wild," Ashleigh Blackford, the supervisor of planning and resource conservation for the Service's Florida field office, said earlier this week.

But in their lawsuit filed Friday morning, environmentalists said the plan failed in a number of ways, starting with surveys of the disappearing species the plan is intended to protect.

Those surveys were either incomplete or nonexistent, according to the lawsuit against the Service, the U.S. Department of Interior, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. No survey was done for tiger beetles, which were first discovered in the pineland in the 1930s, vanished and were rediscovered in 2007. Only part of the forest was checked for bonneted bats, a species so rare and elusive that only a handful of roosts have been documented in South Florida. And plants were used as a proxy to search for Bartram's hairstreak butterflies, the suit claims.

The lawsuit also argued that alternative site plans provided to federal wildlife managers failed to consider county protections already in place, and that the developer inflated the potential restoration on the preserves to paint a rosier picture than would likely occur.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also allowed Cummings' environmental consultants to develop their own formula for calculating the amount of damage that might occur. The untested method, the lawsuit said, had not been peer-reviewed and could set a precedent for use on other projects. About 3,000 people submitted comments on the plan, most opposing it.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Warren said the agency had received a copy of the judge's ruling Friday.

"Our staff put a lot of good work into this project," he said in an email. "Now it becomes a matter for the court."