Despite all the various names appended to units of the National Park System, it long has been argued by many on these pages that all units are treated the same. That contention can easily be dispatched, however, if one looks at the various approaches being wielded to manage the 391 units. For instance, while officials at Yellowstone or Yosemite or Great Smoky Mountains national parks would never consider opening up their parks to hunting or off-road use, the planners at Big Cypress National Preserve are proposing to do so on a relatively large scale.
What needs to be remembered, however, is there are many purposes addressed by the various units of the National Park System, and at Big Cypress hunting was called for in the preserve's enacting legislation. Just the same, the fact that Big Cypress is one of the few remaining haunts available to the Florida panther, viewed by many as the most endangered animal in the United States, would seem to suggest that the preserve's planners would err on the side of habitat preservation in drawing up their management plan. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the "most profound and continuing threat to their survival can be traced to an increasing human population."
At issue now is the need by Big Cypress officials to develop a management plan for what's known locally as the "Addition" lands, a 147,000-acre swath of land located in the preserve's northeastern quadrant that came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. 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.
As Big Cypress officials acknowledge in their current planning effort, the preserve's general management plan contains "no guidance for the Addition" and there is a need "to clearly define resource conditions and visitor experiences to be achieved in the Addition."
When the preserve released its draft management plan for the Addition this past Friday, its preferred alternative called for 85,862 acres of the 147,000-acre total to be proposed for wilderness designation, up to 140 miles of ORV trails to be designated and phased in, with "secondary ORV trails" designated in roughly 52,431 acres, including land in "ORV trail corridors and other backcountry recreation areas."
Now, it's popular to say that if a proposal is criticized by groups on all sides, then it must be a fair deal that doesn't bend too much to any special interest. If that's the case, then perhaps the Big Cypress planners have done a good job. Read these reactions to the proposal:
"Dead on arrival," Frank Denninger, a long-time hunter from Hialeah, Florida, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "I don't know how they can put a plan out with this much wilderness."
Yet over at the Sun Coast office of the National Parks Conservation Association, Director John Adornato told the newspaper that, "I'm disappointed that the preserve has chosen to disregard wetlands protection by putting these trails through sensitive habitat. Mullet Slough is a very sensitive habitat and home to the endangered Florida panther. They would cut through the slough. They would segment panther habitat."
The Big Cypress proposal clearly points out the drawbacks of the preferred alternative:
The key impacts of implementing the preferred alternative would include moderate, long-term, adverse, and mostly localized impacts on surface water flow; long-term, moderate, adverse and potentially Addition-wide impacts on exotic/nonnative plants; long-term, moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the Florida panther; long-term, minor to moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the red-cockaded woodpecker; long-term, minor to moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on major game species; long-term, moderate, beneficial and Addition-wide impacts on wilderness resources and values; long-term, moderate, and beneficial effects on visitor use and experience; and long-term, moderate, and beneficial and adverse impacts on NPS operations and management. (emphasis added)
Now, you can't deny that ORVs have roamed this landscape for a long, long time, and that hunting has been there just as long if not longer. ORV use of the land now found within Big Cypress dates to the 1920s. But 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.
Two years ago, when conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service over its plans to reopen many of those ORV routes in the "Bear Island" section of Big Cypress, then-Superintendent Karen Gustin said the latest biological information on the panther said it could co-exist with ORVs at the proposed levels.
“Back in the mid-90s to the late 90s when this plan was being written, when that lawsuit was going on, there was a general consensus, a feeling among the Park Service and the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service that Bear Island was the only habitat really suitable for the Florida panther. It’s high and dry. It’s the highest and driest area of Big Cypress," she told the Traveler back in October 2007.
"In the mid-90s, eight Texas cougars were brought in to breed with the Florida panthers that were in existence at that time. I think the population was down to about 30. Those panthers bred, they were very successful, and we now have approximately 80-100 panthers in south Florida, and we say approximately 30 of those panthers use Big Cypress on a regular basis," she continued. "We have found subsequent to that genetic reintroduction program that all areas of Big Cypress are suitable for panthers, and in fact panthers are using all of Big Cypress. So, yes, Bear Island is important habitat for the panther, but it’s not the only habitat that’s being used by panthers. All of Big Cypress is being used."
But if one looks at the current plan, it seems to project a lot more adverse impacts than beneficial ones. When you understand what a "moderate adverse impact" could constitute, particularly in connection with threatened or endangered species, the impacts seem quite severe. Here's how the planning document defines a moderate adverse impact: "Individuals may be impacted by disturbances that interfere with critical periods (ie. breeding, denning, nesting, feeding, resting) or habitat; however, the level of impact would not result in a physical injury, mortality, or extirpation from the Addition. Some essential features of designated critical habitat would be reduced; however, the integrity of the habitat would be maintained. This impact intensity would equate to a determination of 'likely to adversely affect' under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act."
And while the plan seems to propose a lot of additional wilderness, critics point out that there would be many non-wilderness ORV corridors penciled in to allow hunters to drive to their hunting grounds. Since Big Cypress already was sued over its proposed changes to the Bear Island plan, suffice to say that another lawsuit is waiting in the wings if the preferred alternative for the Addition is implemented.
The draft management plan, which once approved would remain in effect for 15-20 years, is now open for 60 days of comment. You can read the entire document at this site, and comment either on that site or via mail at the following addresses:
Big Cypress National Preserve
Addition General Management Plan
National Park Service, Denver Service Center — Planning
P.O. Box 25287
Denver, CO 80225
Big Cypress National Preserve
33100 Tamiami Trail East
Ochopee, FL 34141-1000