Park Service Plan for Addition Lands at Big Cypress National Preserve Met With Criticism

While the superintendent of Big Cypress National Preserve says the final management plan for the "Addition" lands within the preserve "provides for strong natural and cultural resource protection," the plan itself states that the preferred alternative is likely to adversely affect endangered Florida panthers.

However, the plan concludes that those impacts won't rise to a level of impairment because of mitigation efforts the Park Service can take in managing the Addition lands.

Under other sections of the management plan approved by Pedro Ramos the amount of Addition lands acreage proposed for official wilderness designation under the draft management plan was substantially reduced, while the amount of authorized off-road vehicle trails dropped minimally.

At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials lamented the not-quite-200-page document, saying it offers too little protection for the panthers.

“Unfortunately, rather than preserving rare and sensitive habitats that are home to the endangered Florida panther, the Park Service chose to maximize vehicular access in the area known as Mullet Slough," noted John Adornato III, the advocacy group's Sun Coast regional director. "In the past, funding and staffing shortfalls have limited the Park Service’s ability to manage ORV use within the larger Big Cypress National Preserve and therefore, ORV use should not be introduced to the Addition lands.

"... NPCA urges the Park Service to revisit their decision prior to publishing the final plan and choose the appropriate measures that will protect endangered species, like the Florida panther, to preserve our national treasure for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

The landscape in question is 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.

The preferred alternative in the final management plan released last week -- and which might be given final approval after a 30-day "no action" period -- calls for up to 130 miles of ORV trails, down just 10 miles from the number recommended in the draft management plan released back in 2009, and as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Both the miles of ORV trails and the maximum number of permits would be delivered in phases, according to the final plan.

While the draft document recommended 85,862 acres of officially designated wilderness, the final plan calls for 47,067 acres of designated wilderness, an amount the plan calls a "moderate amount."

"Areas that were found to be eligible for wilderness designation but were not proposed as wilderness would be protected through management zoning that would maintain and protect natural values," the final plan states.

Hunting also will be allowed in the Addition lands in accordance with language contained in the legislation that placed the lands within Big Cypress.

As for the Florida panther, management plan states that the preferred alternative's key impacts on the animals would be "long-term, moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the Florida panther..."

More specifically, the document states that the "impacts on the Florida panther would be attributed to new facility development, expanded visitor use, and expanded NPS administrative ORV use."

Public ORV use in the Addition under the preferred alternative would be substantially greater than the no-action alternative, with up to 130 miles of designated trails and 650 ORV permits available. The ORV trails and permits would be phased in over time, depending on the results of monitoring. This approach would be more cautious and protective than the approach included under alternative B.

Adverse impacts from ORV use could include displacement of panthers and their avoidance of certain areas within the Addition. Public hunting would also be allowed but is not expected to adversely impact the viability of the panther’s prey base because game populations would be managed for sustainable harvests.

Although no studies have shown that ORV use alone causes changes in panther behavior (NPS 2000), the Janis and Clark (1999) study on the effects of human activity in the original Preserve showed that panthers’ home range shifted and they avoided designated ORV trails during higher levels of human activity associated with hunting season.

Total human use and disturbance within panther habitat in the Addition would increase substantially relative to the no-action alternative. The impacts from these activities would be long term, moderate, adverse, and could be Addition-wide.

However, the authors also don't believe the impacts will rise to an impairment of the panther population because "habitat conditions would be maintained or enhanced and the NPS would strive to meet the species recovery goals."

Preserve officials estimate implementing this preferred alternative would carry a $6.7 million price tag for one-time capital costs, and an annual operating cost of $7.9 million.

In its assessment of the preferred alternative, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the plan would increase human presence in the Addition lands, it "is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Florida panther."