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Big Cypress: Wilderness or ORVs?

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Bicyorvrutsbear_island_copy       There's a unique opportunity in Big Cypress National Preserve to protect a large swath of wilderness, protect habitat for the endangered panther, and allow in-holders to remain within the park's boundaries.
    This opportunity arises as Big Cypress officials develop a management plan for 147,000 acres known as the "Addition" lands. Located in the preserve's northeastern quadrant, the Addition came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap with the Collier family. At the time the Addition was added to Big Cypress, it was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed.
    Well, Big Cypress officials finally are working on that management plan. However, there are concerns that the preserve's administration is leaning towards an alternative that would allow managed ORV trails to be cross-stitched across those 147,000 acres.

    Currently, the preserve is taking public comment on six preliminary alternatives, one of which is a "no action" alternative. Once a set of alternatives has been settled upon, Big Cypress officials will draft a general management plan for the Addition and then conduct an environmental impact statement on the various alternatives.
    But the preserve's assistant superintendent already has indicated that the park would like to see a managed ORV trail system through the Addition, Matthew Schwartz, the political chairman of the Sierra Club of Broward County, told me today.
Bicyswampbuggy3_copy    "That was before the public hearings even came out," he added. "So we fear they’re putting the wilderness (option) in there simply as a formality. They need to have it included.”
    When following this story, it's important to remember that earlier this year preserve officials seemingly went out of their way to open up the Bear Island Unit of Big Cypress to ORV traffic despite studies that indicated ORVs disturb panthers and despite a request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that preserve officials study possible impacts of ORVs on panthers in Bear Island before they lifted the closure.
    It's also important to realize, as the accompanying pictures show, that the ORVs we're talking about are not all your typical, run-of-the-mill ATVs one thinks about when ORVs are mentioned.
    "These things are homemade, they use a combination of parts," explains Mr. Schwartz. "It takes $25,000, $30,000 to put these things together."
    Additionally, the ruts these behemoths create can swallow smaller ATVs, which forces those machines to expand trails by seeking untrammeled ground, he adds.
    Now, the management alternative Mr. Schwartz prefers can be found in Preliminary Alternative F. It proposes to set aside 109,000 of the 147,000 acres in the Addition as designated wilderness with no motorized access; provide for new access points for foot traffic off Interstate 75 at mile markers 51 and 63; allow existing in-holders to remain, and; ban ORV use.
    Preliminary Alternative A, the no action alternative, provides for no official wilderness designation and no motorized use.
    Preliminary Alternative B would set aside 50,000 acres as wilderness and establish up to 139 miles of designated ORV trails.
    Preliminary Alternative C would set aside 69,000 acres as wilderness and establish up to 131 miles of ORV trails.
Bicyswampbuggy5_copy    Preliminary Alternative D would set aside 104,000 acres as wilderness and create up to 76 miles of ORV trails.
    Preliminary Alternative E would set aside 109,000 acres as wilderness and create up to 37 miles of wilderness.
    To see additional details of each preliminary alternative, visit this site.
    At a time when development is erasing more and more of this country's natural landscape and when human pressures are turning national parks into isolated islands that threaten to endanger genetic diversity, it seems that Preliminary Alternative F is not only a reasonable alternative but the most reasonable alternative.
    Public comment on the alternatives that will be included in the draft general management plan is being taken through June 15th. Study the preferred alternatives and file your comments before June 15th.

Comments

When NPS opened the parks to snowmobiles 40 years ago, it was said they would have no impact. Now we know better, and the Yellowstone case shows it can be difficult to curtail an established motorized use. NPS should also be thinking about the impacts of growing ORV traffic at Big Cypress, because that's where the biggest impact comes in.

Protecting the Addition Lands, one of the largest tracts of rapidly vanishing landscape, is essential to ensuring the long-term health of the greater south Florida ecosystem. The National Parks Conservation Association feels very strongly that the Addition Lands must be managed in the most conservative way possible and supports Alternative F as the preliminary alternative for the General Management Plan. We remain opposed to re-introducing ORV use in a highly sensitive area. The re-introduction of ORV's will cause considerable deep rutting and scaring in the Addition. No ORV access plan, even the most conservative one, can protect the Addition Lands in the way the park is required to protect them. Experience shows us that if ORVs are allowed, accidents, misuse and abuse will occur. Just one large buggy stuck in the mud, or one small group of ORVers venturing off the designated trail, can damage the ecological integrity that the National Park Service is mandated to preserve.

Having grown up in the Big Cypress even before it was a national preserve, I find it very frustrating that people that know nothing about the area or it's history submit comments for consideration and this information is used by the NPS planning departments. Swamp buggies have been used for over 50 years as necessary for travel in the Everglades. They have not destroyed the Everglades as some would try to make you believe, development of the glades is the real enemy!. This issue is what caused sportsmen to lobby for the Big Cypress creation at it's beginning. A rut may not seem pretty to some but is it a real damage issue? Modern enviros want everyone to believe that a buggy rut destroys the land. The truth is a rut aids many forms of wildlife with drinking water, gathering minnows, bugs and crawdads as a food supply, promotes green grass and aids in stopping wildfires. Buggy trails cover less than 1% of the Big Cypress land area. The addition lands should be managed as a unit of the original preserve with designated trails that wildlife, ORV users, hikers, bikers and people that get lost can rely on.

Richard, I appreciate the time you took to comment. There is always more than one side to an issue; often there are at least a good half-dozen. And there also are many sets of "facts." I can tell you, though, that the photo of the ruts came from a very reliable source and so I don't question its authenticity. Also, it's accurate to say that past studies have shown that panther use of the Bear Island Unit has gone down during hunting season and that the Park Service overlooked a request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study possible impacts on panthers before the Bear Island Unit was reopened to ORVs. People interested in commenting on the Addition Lands proposal should definitely ask Park Service personnel about panther use in that area of the preserve and whether any studies have been done into how ORV use could impact the panthers. A larger question, I think, is how do we as a society value America's landscape? Do we want everything to be developed and overrun? Do we want any patches of land protected as wilderness, both to protect the land and all the species contained within for future generations to enjoy and benefit from? These are tough questions and will spur many different answers. But only by asking them will we come to a better understanding of the issues and possible solutions.

Kurt,I read your article and must say I disagree with alot of your opinions.My family and I have been visiting Big Cypress Bear Island unit for many years and have not seen buggy ruts like your picture shows.We have traveled down every trail and for the most part they are kept clean of trash and people are obeying rules.I have seen deer,panther and many other animals in the same area over and over, they dont seem to mind me being there.I see no reason why the Addition Lands should not be reopened as part of Big Cypress National Preserve for traditional uses.For the people reading this article and posts please don't comment on the alternatives without knowing the real facts.

Retired Physician, lover of outdoors,WITH endangered species concerns. Take away the sense of freedom and the ability to be familiar with sometimes risky activities(e.g: exposure to panthers and even rattlesnakes), as well as being comfortable with guns, from our citizens, and the YOUNG PEOPLE they take with them to the rugged outdoors, and eventually you take away our means of national defense. Be more tolerant.

The above comments were posted by Wayne Jenkins, not Bruce Ward. I don't know how the error occurred.

Once again, instead of of all user groups working together to allow everyone to protect and enjoy their favorite recreation, we have a group pushing their agenda with mis-representation of the facts. The Bear Island Unit is part of the original preserve and the designated trails were provided for in the ORV Management Plan. The NPS established secondary trails, off the main trail, that travel a short distance, dead end at a specific point, and must return on the same trail. While the number of miles of trails were arbitrarily imposed by a former superintendent, the ORV community is attempting to work with the NPS to develop suitable trails that allow for ORV use and enjoyment. The big distinction many people to not grasp is the fact that the Big Cypress area was created by congress as a PRESERVE and not a national PARK. This area was created by sportsmen, conservationists and environ-mentalists working together to lobby for creation and protection of this area by congress from development. It was created as a preaserve to allow for hunting and ORV use. Congressional testimony stated the area was to be used and used hard. The alternative would have been to allow for further development around an established jetport used for practice jet landings and take offs. The new environmental arrivals are intent on disregarding the enabling legislation and pushing their personal beliefs. The addition lands should become part of the current Big Cypress National Preserve and managed as congress intended.

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