Federal decision says that the National Park Service violated the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

12.13.23
Dr. Melqui Gamba-Rios

Miami (December 11, 2023) – Responding to a lawsuit by conservation groups, a federal judge found today that the National Park Service violated the law when it released land-use restrictions on a site proposed for the controversial Miami Wilds water park.

Based on these violations of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, Judge Patricia Seitz invalidated the Park Service’s actions. The federal judge found that the agency had long known of its responsibilities to preserve endangered species and their habitat but nevertheless failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before executing an agreement and a release of land-use restrictions with Miami-Dade County. This failure rendered the Service’s decision invalid from the outset.

“The court’s ruling rights an outrageous wrong that put endangered bats and other species at risk, but more needs to be done to ensure their future,” said attorney Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Folks in Miami-Dade County are so blessed to have these incredibly rare and beautiful ambassadors of wild Florida living right in their backyards. It would be a shame to put their very existence at risk with a poorly sited development.”

Miami-Dade County asserted in court that the judge’s decision to set aside the Park Service’s release would render invalid the development agreement with Miami Wilds, LLC. And in late September the county indicated an intent to cancel the lease upon the court ordering, as it did today, that the Park Service’s actions were invalid.

“The plan for Miami Wilds is not only highly controversial, it is also falling apart legally,” said Mike Daulton, executive director at Bat Conservation International. “Miami Wilds threatens some of the rarest wildlife in the country, and the local community doesn’t want it. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is right to call for rescinding this fatally flawed lease, and to stand up for Miami’s environment and families.”

“We are relieved to see the National Park Service being held accountable for their critical mistake,” said Tropical Audubon Society senior conservation director Lauren Jonaitis. “But the fight to halt the proposed Miami Wilds development from being built on crucial open space continues because endangered animals and plants rely on the site for their very survival.”

“We appreciate the judiciary taking a strong stand to require the federal bureaucracy to do its job while complying with applicable environmental regulations.” said Dennis Olle, president of the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.

The National Park Service’s now-invalidated release had paved the way for the controversial Miami Wilds theme park, retail and parking to be developed in and around environmentally sensitive habitat. The theme park and retail development would threaten the endangered Florida bonneted bat, endangered Miami tiger beetle, endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak, several endangered plants, proposed endangered Rim Rock crowned snake and globally imperiled pine rocklands.

Background

In 2022 the Park Service signed off on an agreement with Miami-Dade County to remove land-use restrictions on the site. But the agency failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure the development will not jeopardize endangered species or destroy critical habitat — a key step required by the Endangered Species Act. The agency also failed to undertake requisite review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Park Service’s unlawful release was a precondition for a development lease agreement between Miami-Dade County and the developer to construct a 27.5-acre water park, retail area and hotel with associated parking lots.

In February 2023 the Center for Biological Diversity, Bat Conservation International, Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and Tropical Audubon Society filed suit over the project in federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

The Florida bonneted bat depends on the area as a key foraging location. This habitat feeds the bat’s largest known population, which is also genetically unique, making it critical to the species’ survival and recovery. The proposed development would introduce light, noise and buildings that would destroy conditions the bats need to forage.

The project footprint also threatened critical habitat for the endangered Miami tiger beetle, Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak and Florida leafwing, and proposed critical habitat for the Florida bonneted bat, Rim Rock crowned snake and three plants: Blodgett’s silverbush, Everglades bully and sand flax. Rare plants like the Florida brickell-bush and Carter’s small-flowered flax are also present around the site.

The development would also threaten critically imperiled pine rockland habitat on and surrounding the site by hampering the natural fire needed to support ecosystem health and introducing nonnative and invasive species. Pine rocklands are home to dozens of rare and endangered animals, plants and insects found nowhere else on Earth.

Founded in 1982, Bat Conservation International is a global conservation organization dedicated to ending bat extinctions. Bat Conservation International works worldwide to conserve caves, restore critical habitats in danger, and ensure the survival of the world’s bat species. For more information, visit batcon.org.

Media Contact: Kathryn Slater  

Tel: 512.327.9721 Ext. 463  

Email: kslater@batcon.org    

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Miami Blue Chapter serves southeastern Florida, specifically Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. We are a membership-based, not-for-profit organization working to increase the public enjoyment and conservation of butterflies. The Chapter is named after one of the rarest butterflies in North America, which used to (and one day will again) call Miami home.

Tropical Audubon Society is a science- and solutions-based nonprofit conservation organization driven by its grassroots community and principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. Tropical Audubon’s Legacy is to protect, conserve and restore South Florida ecosystems by working closely with local governments and other stakeholders, and by fostering wise stewardship of native habitats, birds and other indigenous wildlife.