Activists Find Flaws in Permits and Plans for Land Clearing and Relocation of Endangered Plants and Animals
After ten years of opposition to state- and county-backed efforts to construct a biotech hub in Palm Beach County, Florida—where the rare Briger Forest currently stands—developers are now clearing land under suspicious circumstances. Since 2010, opponents of the “Scripps Phase II” project have cited the presence of gopher tortoises, rare native ferns, and other threatened and endangered species as reasons to stop the proposed development of the Briger Forest.
Despite these concerns, The Scripps Research Institute—a California-based biomedical company with a campus across the road from the threatened forest—are moving forward on their plans of expansion. Last week, members of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition (PBCEC) and Everglades Earth First! (EEF!) discovered that Ranger Construction Industries had begun clearing a large segment of the southeastern portion of the Briger Forest.
The clearing of forest marks an unofficial groundbreaking for the construction of a proposed biotech city revolving around “Phase II” of the Scripps Florida laboratories. As with much of the planning surrounding Scripps, activists say that it appears plans for this access road were made behind closed doors.
Before construction began only weeks ago, the dense forest of pine flatwoods and saw palmetto rarely saw any traffic aside from the occasional horse riders out of the Wandering Trails stable next door. The forest is home to bobcats, armadillos, raccoons, and ground likens, as well as threatened and endangered animal and plant species, including the gopher tortoise, hand fern, royal fern, and native species of bromeliad. It is also suitable habitat for the Eastern indigo snake—an endangered species at serious risk due to habitat loss.
On November 7, 2014, members of Everglades Earth First! responded to news of the work being done by locking themselves to a disabled van blocking the entrance to the construction zone. The blockade successfully kept out workers and excavation machinery for over four hours, while alerting local residents and the media to the destruction being carried out in the Briger.
The same day, PBCEC members visited Palm Beach Gardens City Hall to request permits for the clearing of the forest, but city staff were unable to locate a land clearing permit for the construction taking place. The following business day, when PBCEC members returned to City Hall, city staff were suddenly able to locate the permits, which—though dated 10/22/2014—seemed to have been hastily filled out the night before. Information missing from the permits included: Project Name, Project Address, APN, Subdivision, and Development. Not to mention that the “Total Square Footage” of the land clearing permit is listed as 0, despite the fact that hundreds of feet of forest have already been cleared.
The weekend after the blockade, a clandestine monitoring team surveyed and documented the impacts of work in preparation for ongoing legal challenges to the clearing operations. PBCEC has been engaged in a legal battle over the destruction of the Briger Forest for the past four years, and the group believes the current work is being conducted in violation of state, federal and local laws intended to protect threatened and endangered species.
In past months, activists have used game cameras to document gopher tortoise activity in the Briger Forest. The gopher tortoise is classified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as a threatened species. The permit map from EW Consultants, Inc.—a natural resource management, wetland, and environmental permitting services group—lists 75 known gopher tortoise burrows in an area that constitutes approximately 25% of the land slated for construction (Map A). Additionally, PBCEC and EEF! have documented gopher tortoise locations in the area that has already been cleared by Ranger Construction Industries (Map B). Each burrow that is removed is a nail in the coffin of the federally endangered Eastern indigo snakes that are expected to be living on the property. Eastern indigo snakes are known to cohabitate with gopher tortoises, and FWS has documented that they expect there to be six such snakes living on the property. The future of threatened species on the property seems to have been disregarded by Scripps and the city of Palm Beach Gardens, who are moving forward with their plans to build strip malls and biotech labs in this critical and rare habitat—with inadequate and questionable permits backing them up.
Members of PBCEC and EEF! have also joined together to conduct an extensive study of the resident population of endangered hand ferns in the Briger (Map B). Where the developers’ consultants only located two ferns on the entire site, volunteer surveyors located and documented the presence of over 50 cabbage palms hosting hand fern colonies. This research revealed the Briger to contain one of the largest concentrations of hand ferns in the entire continental United States.
EEF! and PBCEC have been fighting to protect the Briger Forest since 2009. The campaign has included legal challenges, petitions, public outreach, public comments, protests, and civil disobedience—including treesits and last week’s blockade. The groups will continue to challenge the destruction of the Briger Forest, which has only just begun. But time is running out.
– Call Palm Beach Gardens Code Compliance and tell them to stop clearing the forest: (561) 799-4245
– Email Palm Beach Gardens City Officials:
Mayor Bert Premuroso <email@example.com>
Vice Mayor Eric Jablin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Council Member Joe Russo <email@example.com>
Council Member Marcie Tinsley <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Council Member David Levy <email@example.com>
City Manager Ron Ferris <firstname.lastname@example.org>