MIAMI (AP) -- Bulldozers downing trees on a property targeted for a Walmart-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.
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.
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 The untested method, the lawsuit said, had not been peer-reviewed and could set a precedent for use on other projects.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."