A Voice for the Wild: FIU Student raises environmental awareness about controversial development

Michael Perez holding the first pondapple of the season | Paloma Pimentel, PantherNOW

Paloma Pimentel | Contributing Writer

The environmental concerns that sparked the fierce advocacy of Michael Perez’s movement are once again at the forefront of one of Miami’s most controversial infrastructure projects. 

In an interview with PantherNOW, Michael explains how he spent his early life enjoying the verdurous riches of West Kendall, the suburbs of Miami. 

His interest in the environment began from an early age, so when he started college at FIU for environmental studies and sustainability, he was already highly educated on the matter. It wasn’t until 2020 that he ultimately started his advocacy work.

It was when he read an article from Bat Conservation International, an environmental advocacy group, about the project called Miami Wilds, that he discovered developers’ plans on building a massive construction adjacent to protected Pine Rockland Forest which meant the decimation of an area rich in plant diversity near his home.  

“I was outraged because I had been learning about how imperiled Pine Rocklands were and how they were going to build a massive development near them, I knew something had to be done from a local angle.”

Michael understood how these Pine Rockland forests rely on human-made controlled fires to remain healthy, which will no longer be possible in such close proximity to the development. 

Immediately, Michael called one of his closest friends, and they brought other concerned individuals together to form an advocacy group called ‘Voices for the Wild.’

The youth-led environmental group advocates against the Miami Wild development to this day by educating locals on the issue through social media, teaching them how to apply pressure on public officials, and rallying people to attend commissioner meetings.

He expresses his initial frustrations due to the negligence on behalf of the county to allow such a project to take place, 

“The National Park Service was supposed to do several reviews of the development to approve it, but these reviews were not done in an act of self-admitted oversight,” he continues, “Commissioners value our natural land when it’s convenient for them to do so, where Miami Dade Parks’ claims in being committed stewards for our land and to preserve our natural, cultural, and physical resources, but they are only destroying and endangering the future of our forests for future generations enjoyment.” 

The public opposition created by his coalition led to many investors pulling out of the Miami Wilds project in its beginning stages. Even though the development was approved in 2020, it changed from taking up 130 acres to 67.5. This was a big win for Michael and other conservation groups, but he says the battle isn’t over yet. 

Throughout the many lawsuits the project faced by environmental organizations which led to several years of it’s delay, Michael focused on other environmental issues within his coalition such as fighting urban sprawl in Homestead.

The Miami Wilds project is currently undergoing continuous review by the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as other Federal agencies who considered the plans to build a water park, possible hotel, and massive parking lot, pose a great environmental threat to the Florida bonneted bat, Miami tiger beetle, and the surrounding forests. 

In light of these environmental concerns for the project and the pressure for a final decision before their lease ends, the project came back from the shadows and into Michael’s radar. He explains that even though most of the county is against the development, as shown in public commentary, commissioners are still considering whether to move the project’s location and extend the lease for developers or end it overall. 

Michael asserts that his efforts in advocating against the project and instigating crowds to attend the commission hearings have been effective because commissioners keep deferring their final decision. 

However, he quickly adds how this can be their way of mitigating opposition by extending the process which can lead to the “pocket item” tactic. That is, delaying the final decision with no further details on the date for the next hearing to decrease public involvement. 

“After the Sept. 6 meeting, word got around that the final decision was going to be deferred to Sept. 19, but then-Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office publicly shared how sponsors were requesting deferral to no certain date, we knew that this was their way of breaking up the crowd by not releasing a specific date for the final hearing which wouldn’t allow public opposition to prepare and attend the hearing.” 

Despite efforts to do so, Michael applauds Commissioner Raquel Regalado’s enforcement of the committee to schedule the final hearing for Dec. 12, which gives Miachel ample time to spread awareness and build a stronger opposition. 

Michael anticipates the Fish and Wildlife’s Nov. 14  report on the bonneted bat’s critical habitat areas, which if overlapped by the project, can lead to Miami Wild’s rejection. 

Recently, Michael visited the potential site of the project only last week, located in the parking lot of Zoo Miami, and was appalled at what he saw. 

“My purpose was to film social media content and report the current state of the land on my socials, but I did not expect to see the cutting and decimation of natural habitats even before the project’s approval and required federal surveys,” He emphatically adds, “Their mowing of native and invasive plants already impacts the environment.” 

Michael Perez speaking to Miami-Dade commissioners on Sept. 6 | Courtesy of Michael Perez

In invigorating public awareness of this issue, Michael highlights the reasons why they should care: 

  • The project can be relocated to a site where the economic development is more useful, and there are no environmental threats 
  • The quality of local natural habitats decreases, eventually interrupting the natural food chain of several local species
  • Research supports the argument that there is a price on nature, where green spaces drive up property value because Miami’s wealthier areas tend to have more tree canopy and plant diversity
  • There are only 1.2% of Pine Rocklands left outside of the Everglades
  • This land’s forest is one of Miami-Dade’s oldest natural habitats, predating the Everglades
  • Pine Rockland forests help prevent flooding by seeping up groundwater that feeds our aquifers

Michael continuously finds creative ways to educate and spread awareness of Miami Wild and other environmental issues by transforming the data into cohesive and approachable discussion topics. He wonders at the benefits of Miami’s wilderness in the hopes of relating conservation issues and advocacy back to the people. 

“I use social media as a powerful tool to inform people, such as creating Instagram reels that have proven to be extremely successful where a recent video I produced received about 9,000 views, where I only have 700 followers!” He adds, “This means it was massively shared and reposted.”  

“I receive Immense joy in fighting for the preservation of our land, where I feel a sense of duty in bringing people together and changing the narrative of what the land can do for us to what we can do for it.”

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