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A controversial plan to build the Miami Wilds water theme park near disappearing pine rocklands at Zoo Miami has a tough new critic: popular zoo spokesman Ron Magill.

Magill issued a rare rebuke of his bosses in an editorial published in a small local community newspaper on Friday, which he shared with his more than 60,000 Twitter followers. He told WLRN he’s willing to lose his job after more than 40 years because he believes the project runs counter to the zoo’s conservation mission.

“I can no longer continue to just sit back and not say anything,” he said. “If the zoo is the last place where a species of animal can be seen, then zoos have failed.”

The 67-acre project to build the water park and a hotel near the zoo comes back before county commissioners on Wednesday. It was approved in 2020, but several conservation groups sued in February seeking to block the deal, because federal wildlife officials failed to complete environmental studies before they lifted restrictions to allow the water park.

The area represents the largest fragment of pine rockland outside Everglades National Park and development within its boundaries has repeatedly drawn scrutiny. The forest can only be found in South Florida and the Bahamas — and less than 3% of it remains. That means many of the animals and plants that inhabit the rocky forest are considered threatened or endangered, including 17 found in the area targeted for the park.

In February, the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service acknowledged in federal court that they had failed to complete environmental studies looking at potential harm from the water park.

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The studies would have examined impacts to a number of species including bonneted bats, the largest bat in North America. The high-flying bat uses the forest’s open canopy to hunt for food and the zoo parking lot, where Miami Wilds would be built, has been documented as its primary foraging grounds.

A decade ago, a strip mall and apartments

A decade ago, Miami-Dade drew fierce criticism after approving a strip mall and apartments on pineland next to the zoo. The federal government, which once owned most of the tract including Zoo property, had donated the land to the University of Miami for educational use. When a deed restriction ended, the university sold the land to a Palm Beach County developer.

Conservationists rescuing endangered plants after the deal was approved, quickly discovered more endangered species than expected. At the time, federal wildlife managers were finalizing plans to add two rare butterflies that live in the forest to the endangered species list.

Miami tiger beetles — which had been considered extinct for decades until being rediscovered in pineland around the zoo in 2006 — were added to the list in 2016. And in May, federal authorities designated critical habitat in the zoo pineland.

Magill said he remained quiet after being warned that, as an employee, he could not oppose it. He now regrets not speaking up because he said the strip mall has damaged wildlife despite a conservation plan that included two areas where pineland was supposed to be restored.

“It’s one of these situations that I think developers have learned that if they tell you what you want to hear, then they can do what they want to do and nobody’s going to come back and make them accountable,” he said. “I’m not going to stand by and do that anymore. I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed that I did not stand up when that Wal-Mart thing happened.”

Criticism over the project led it to be slightly downsized. A hotel originally proposed closer to the zoo would be moved to nearby land where affordable housing is now located. That housing would need to be included in the hotel’s plans if executed.

But concerns remain over the water park and a sprawling parking lot that would also be redeveloped and include parking fees.

Lawsuit over lack of federal assessments

The Center for Biological Diversity, Bat Conservation International, Tropical Audubon and the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association said they tried to obtain the studies from federal wildlife managers looking at impacts last year.

Back in the 1970s when the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service gave the land to the county, they placed deed restrictions requiring the land to be used as public parks. To clear the way for the water park and hotel, those restrictions needed to be lifted, requiring two assessments under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Ace.

When the groups were told none had been done, they sued. Miami-Dade County joined the federal agencies in fighting the case. Having county commissioners amend the lease Wednesday to give the federal agencies time to complete the studies, staff said in a report to commissioners, would make the case moot.

Even if federal authorities find potential harm, those studies don’t often derail development. Instead, they require mitigation plans, which Magill worries won’t do enough to protect the endangered wildlife.

“That parking lot is not just pavement. There are many tree islands out there. There are many grasses growing out there. It is a foraging place for these bats, the single most endangered bat in the United States,” he said.

“What people see as just a pavement and a parking lot during the daytime, at nighttime transforms into this incredible habitat that provides the food and the necessary elements for these bats to survive.”

Magill made clear this week he was speaking for himself, in fact he had taken time off work when he made the statement. But he said he worried about backlash.

“Now I’m not going to quit, trust me. But I’m going to make it abundantly clear that I don’t agree with this,” he said. “Enough is enough. We cannot continue. There’s got to be another place to build this water park. And I’m going to scream it till I’m blue in the face that I’m totally against this.”

Jenny Staletovich

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.