By Sarah Fiorello

By: Laura Galvao Attarian

Walmart construction begins after a year-long legal battle over the fate of the Pine Rocklands. Image by Laura Galvao Attarian.

One of the most heartbreaking days of my life was leaving my shift at work one day only to drive by one of the last remaining Pine Rockland patches in the world and seeing trees laying on the ground and bulldozers in action. A legal battle between developers and environmental conservationists had been fought for years, going back and forth on whether a Walmart supermarket should be constructed in the place of this incredible forest, and seeing the trees being cut down I instantly knew who had won. Part of me felt guilty that I wasn’t active in this battle, I should have attended protests and City Hall events and written letters to the mayor of Miami, but I was too busy attending climate strikes. I had been such an avid member of the Miami climate coalition that I didn’t understand where my guilt was coming from. I had been fighting for this issue, right? Not really. Yes, The Pine Rockland crisis is absolutely an environmental issue, but just because I don’t want to see more corporations relentlessly releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere doesn’t mean I had been fighting for this forest. My presence at the climate strike surely shouldn’t go unnoticed, but other than awareness and infuriating the mayor of Miami Beach, our particular chapter hadn’t solved global warming or the sea level rise crisis in the city. The Pine Rockland extinction on the other hand could have been avoided with more awareness and public action. The Pine Rocklands is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, and the South Florida community has let it down by allowing such harsh urbanization, which is leading to its extinction. This is not a unique story, however, and the deforestation of small habitats is taking place every day in our own backyard, but we are often thinking about fixing climate change rather than preventing it at its root.

The Pine Rocklands is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. It is composed of slash pine and subtropical plants and can even be submerged underwater during the wet season. This forest is home to over 220 species of animals, many of which are endemic to this ecosystem. One example is the gopher tortoise. This tortoise is unlike any other because other organisms in this ecosystem depend on the gopher tortoise to survive. It digs burrows up to forty feet that become home to several other species in this forest, and they play a critical role in dispersing seeds. One of the most fascinating aspects of this tortoise is that their stomach is able to attack the seeds of invasive fruits or plants that they eat, so when they defecate, they don’t spread the non-native plant. The Pine Rocklands depend on the gopher tortoise to remain a functioning ecosystem. With less than 700,000 tortoises remaining, it has become a priority to conserve this species in order to conserve the Pine Rocklands and the other incredible species only native to this ecosystem. But due to recent urbanization, the extinction of this tortoise and of the Pine Rocklands sit on the horizon. With less than 2% of the original vegetation remaining, it has become unlikely we’ll ever be able to restore this ecosystem.

Gopher Tortoise crossing the road in Florida. One of the most devastating consequences of urbanization is wildlife displacement which can result in accidents such as negative encounters with humans or domestic animals and, most often car accidents. Image by Laura Galvao Attarian

The Pine Rocklands is a great model ecosystem because it allows us to examine not only how climate change is related to urbanization, but also how climate change is enraged by urbanization. We often discuss urbanization as one of the causes of climate change, and while that’s true, we don’t realize that climate change can also bite back and worsen the conditions of an urbanized town, causing further development and placing us in a positive feedback loop between climate change and urbanization. Hurricanes are among the most consequential climate-change-related phenomena in South Florida. Since Florida is prone to flooding and the Pine Rocklands are generally elevated, they are often targeted for commercial and residential construction. This construction only further enrages Mother Nature, so unfortunately, as a result, the area is prone to more hurricanes, which cause gopher tortoise burrows to flood.

The Pine Rocklands suffer the most from the repercussions of a hurricane as it is meant to be a dry habitat. In fact, on a completely opposite end of the climate spectrum, wildfires are necessary in order to maintain this environment healthy. Fires are able to raze unhealthy and dying plants to allow new vegetation to grow. I find it interesting that the same thing that is responsible for the death and mass destruction of the forests in California and Australia is actually the solution to maintaining a different type of ecosystem. This just goes to show how complex the world is, and how different environments react differently to global warming, and the different effects of climate change. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to environmental catastrophes. These are such complex ecosystems and environmental issues that we must find a custom solution to every environment, which is why restoring nature is not a fast and easy process.

Ultimately, the goal has always been to avoid climate change and to restore vegetation. But when we have ecologically-based conversations, I urge you to not make the mistake I did and think about regional disturbances and ways to help this environmental crisis that is climate change at a more local scale. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage you to avoid using plastic straws in order to “save the turtles” or adapt to other methods of conservation. But what about the animals that only exist in your region who are on the verge of extinction? Who is standing up for them? We cannot save the earth without saving our garden first.

Works Cited

  • Koptur, Suzanne, and Ian Jones. “Dead Land Walking: The Value of Continued Conservation Efforts in South Florida’s Imperiled Pine Rocklands.” Biodiversity & Conservation, vol. 26, no. 14, Dec. 2017, pp. 3241–3253. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10531-017-1433-6.
  • J. Hardin Waddle, et al. “Changes in Abundance of Gopher Tortoise Burrows at Cape Sable, Florida.” Southeastern Naturalist, vol. 5, no. 2, Jan. 2006, pp. 277–284. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3878207&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  • Norman, Gene, and Allison Chinchar. “The 2020 Hurricane Season Could Set a Record for Most Named Storms.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Oct. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/10/03/weather/gamma-rapid-intensification-on-record-season/index.html.
  • “How Climate Change Is Making Hurricanes More Dangerous ” Yale Climate Connections.” Yale Climate Connections, 21 July 2020, yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/07/how-climate-change-is-making-hurricanes-more-dangerous/.
  • “5 Natural Disasters That Beg for Climate Action.” Oxfam International, 7 Apr. 2020, www.oxfam.org/en/5-natural-disasters-beg-climate-action.
  • “Natural Resources Conservation Service.” NRCS, www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/plantsanimals/fishwildlife/?cid=stelprdb1047006.