By Matthew Schwartz
As Kevin Loller’s recent article on Big Cypress indicates, the heart of the problem is the extent to which off-road vehicles (ORVs) will be allowed access to the preserve. The article focused on the recent decision by Superintendent Karen Gustin to reopen closed trails in the popular Bear Island unit and the probable lawsuit that will be filed by a coalition of environmental groups in response. If the public is to make sense of this conflict, all key facts need to be available.
The management plan which originally closed the Bear Island trails was a settlement to a lawsuit over the destruction of preserve resources by ORVs. That plan was challenged in court and upheld by two federal judges. It has the force of law. The plan allows for approximately 30 miles of ORV trails in Bear Island out of a total of 400 miles for the entire original preserve. The final plan found 25 miles of suitable trail in Bear Island .
The recent decision reopened 15 miles of primary trail and 9 miles of secondary trail—essentially doubling the trail length and areas of use. While the management plan clearly states that secondary trails will have a specific destination such as a campsite or property, the secondary trails laid out in Superintendent Gustin’s decision have no such destination and appear to be used simply to extend the allowable trail distances.
It should also be noted that there now remains no area for hikers or walk-in hunters in Bear Island. From a tranquil area one could explore on foot to a jumble of ever widening mud roads, near pristine sections of Bear Island that have been completely transformed. There are currently less than 2,000 ORV permit holders in Big Cypress. For the more than 500,000 annual visitors who do not utilize ORVs, a visit to a national preserve should not mean having to hike in a vehicle-scarred landscape amidst the noises and smells of “traffic.”
The plan itself gave two reasons for the original closures. The first was to provide undisturbed habitat for the critically endangered Florida panther. A three-year study showed that panthers decreased their use of Bear Island from between 30 to 40 percent during times of heightened ORV activity. The second was the terrain itself. Eastern Bear Island is almost entirely prairie and inundated for most of the year. According to the ORV management plan, prairies are the least suitable areas for sustained ORV usage. Damage cited includes the removal of vegetation; oxidation and compaction of soil; hydrological changes; and the likely spread of invasive plant species. Dispersed use is also known to occur due to the total lack of obstacles in prairies and the need for vehicles to move to less disturbed ground in order to gain traction. All prairies in the preserve were closed to ORVs by the plan in 2000.
Of all the places I have hiked, Big Cypress is by far the easiest and most accommodating. With no hills to climb, no rocks to step over, and pleasant daytime breezes to keep mosquitoes away it is easily accessible to all. The convenience of dry feet for a relatively few is hardly worth damage to one of our nation’s premier biological reserves — home to countless species including 30 animals and 72 plants classified as in need of protection. At a time when the U.S. Congress has just allocated over $300 million of taxpayer money to remove roads and hydrological impediments in the nearby Picayune Strand, the National Park Service should not be moving in the opposite direction.
The Off-Road Vehicle Plan of 2000 represents five years of combined work by administrators, lawyers, scientists, planners, and concerned citizens, many of whom took time from their lives to provide input at numerous public forums. The final plan is sound. It is designed to allow off-road vehicle use to take place in a unit of the National Park Service where the maintenance of its “natural and ecological integrity in perpetuity” is still the primary mission. In the reopening of the Bear Island trails, Superintendent Gustin is out of line and is violating a previous park service decision. She should fulfill her duties as steward of an irreplaceable piece of public land and change course immediately.
— Matthew Schwartz is political chair of the Broward Group of the Sierra Club. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.