A coalition of seven groups is suing the National Park Service over its decision to reauthorize off-road vehicle use in an area of Big Cypress National Preserve, saying the move directly impacts sensitive Florida panther habitat.
Preserve Superintendent Karen Gustin has said her decision to open 20 miles of ORV routes in the Bear Island Unit is justified and that by doing so preserve managers will establish a well-defined trail network, one that will be easier to regulate. Superintendent Gustin also has said that while the Bear Island landscape is used by Florida panthers, so are other areas of the preserve.
The Bear Island area is known for its marl prairies, marshes and cypress swamps, interspersed with hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods.
ORV use of the land now found within Big Cypress dates to the 1920s. Down through the decades, unregulated ORV use has burgeoned, leading to the creation of more than 23,000 miles of dispersed trails. In 2000, then-Superintendent John Donahue, acting on biological information and suitability studies indicating that ORVs were damaging ecosystems and disturbing the Florida panther, implemented an ORV plan that aimed to cut those 23,300 miles of dispersed trail down to just 400 miles of designated trails.
In the Bear Island Unit, that plan called for a reduction of 55 miles of primary trails to just about 30 miles of primary trails and an unspecified amount of secondary routes. Earlier this year, though, Superintendent Gustin determined that those 20 miles of closed trails could be reopened.
But the groups that filed a lawsuit on Friday -- the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, The Florida Biodiversity Project, and Wildlands CPR -- maintain the reopened ORV routes are located within "the most sensitive habitats of the Bear Island Unit."
“Big Cypress and the Florida panther deserve better protection,” said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The National Park Service started protecting areas while still allowing some off-road vehicle use in 2000, now the agency is taking a wrong turn that will harm the prairies, cypress swamps, and critical panther habitat in the Preserve.”
Laura Bevan, the regional director of The Humane Society of the United States, said it makes no sense to open up Bear Island to more ORV use when Florida's natural landscape is being over-developed.
“Florida's over-development is surging, and that is precisely why it's so important to have basic protections in place for wildlife in areas such as Big Cypress National Preserve,” she said. “The National Park Service should limit off-road vehicle use in Big Cypress so that it does not cause lasting damage to panthers and other imperiled wildlife.”
According to the groups’ lawsuit, by opening up these habitats to ORV use, the Park Service is violating the 2000 off-road vehicle plan, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws, regulations, and policies.
Last year, the National Park Service adopted Management Policies that identified its paramount mission as the preservation and protection of park resources and values. The policies specifically state that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.”
“Big Cypress is a special place for many Americans because of its cypress trees, vast marshes, and wildlife, including the Florida panther,” said Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society. “The Park Service must place its highest priority on protecting the Preserve. It is what the American people expect and what the agency is required to do.”
John Adornato of the NPCA questions whether the Park Service has the staff or the funding "to adequately manage and enforce off-road vehicle policies that protect this sensitive wetland area for visitors to enjoy.”