Amidst charges that he circumvented National Park Service policies on wilderness preservation to provide greater off-road vehicle access to Big Cypress National Preserve, Superintendent Pedro Ramos offers a short history lesson.
The south Florida preserve that covers more than 720,000 acres has a management mandate that differs from that of a "national park," he notes. While oil and gas exploration are not allowed in national parks, it and other uses, such as hunting, trapping, and even ORV use, are permissible in Big Cypress, the superintendent said last week.
“I like to tell people it’s not just different uses, it’s a different mandate from Congress, and it’s not up to us to change the mandate from Congress to manage this place differently than national parks," Superintendent Ramos said during a telephone call.
Many of those who worked for Big Cypress' establishment in 1974 realized various user groups would have to compromise for the preserve to come about, he said.
"There’s some old-timers that are still around that were in the trenches making sure that this place would be protected to perpetuity because it is so special that tell me today that without that compromise, and the vision that some had to think about this new concept of management, the preserve concept, this place would have never been set aside," the superintendent continued. "So it was a place that was created and founded on this concept and promise of compromise, where everybody has a place, where conservation is important. But having access is also important. If we forget that, and if we are not true to the intention of Congress and the mandate that they gave us to the act, we would not only be breaking promises made that resulted in the creation of the place, but we would be violating law, the law that created the preserve, which ultimately is what it all boils down to.”
But some organizations believe Superintendent Ramos is violating laws and bending the process to benefit ORV use with the final version of a general management plan for the 147,000 acres of "Addition" lands that came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. At the time the Addition was added to the preserve's northeastern corner, it was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed.
When Superintendent Ramos released the final version of that plan in November, it called for up to 130 miles of ORV trails, and as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Along the way to developing that plan, his critics allege that the superintendent and his staff went around Park Service Director Jon Jarvis' wishes and denied wilderness eligibility for 40,000 acres in the Addition section.
“Under (President) Bush, we never saw this type of blatant maneuvering to reduce park protections that we are seeing now at Big Cypress,” claimed Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in a statement issued last week. “In the 50-year history of wilderness review in the National Park System there have been few, if any, examples of disqualifying eligible lands to accommodate motorized recreation, and certainly nothing of this magnitude.”
Others criticizing the superintendent's plan are the National Parks Conservation Association and the South Florida Wildlands Association, groups that not only take issue with the ORV access allowed under the plan but worry about its impacts on the highly endangered Florida panther.
In launching its salvo, PEER assembled several documents that address how Big Cypress officials over the years have evaluated acreage in the preserve for official wilderness designation, legislation specific to the Addition lands, and documentation of how Superintendent Ramos "reanalyzed" wilderness eligible lands to significantly reduce the number of acres potentially suitable for wilderness designation.
Among those documents is one that mentions a meeting Superintendent Ramos and the Park Service's Southeast regional director, David Vela, had with Director Jarvis early last year. According to PEER's account (attached below), the superintendent and Mr. Vela wanted Mr. Jarvis' approval to waive a section of the Park Service's Management Policies pertaining to wilderness-quality landscapes so they could allow ORV use in the Addition lands.
The specific section of the 2006 Management Policies states that, "[T]he National Park Service will take no action that would diminish the wilderness eligibility of an area possessing wilderness characteristics until the legislative process of wilderness designation has been completed. Until that time management decisions will be made in expectation of eventual wilderness designation.”
When Mr. Jarvis denied that waiver request, PEER maintains that "Ramos and Vela implemented a new strategy. If lands deemed eligible for wilderness stand in the way of their pending ORV decision, they would simply reanalyze the lands. They conducted a quick re-analysis. Vela submitted the re-analysis to the Director on April 20, 2010. Deputy Director Dan Wenk approved it on May 12, 2010."
When reached last week, Superintendent Ramos said he hadn't yet had time to fully review PEER's allegations. He maintained, however, that the reduction of "wilderness eligible" acres in the Addition lands from more than 111,000 identified in 2009 to 47,067 acres was the result of park staff taking into consideration more than 17,000 comments submitted on the draft version of the Addition lands management plan.
“I don’t know what they mean by that," he replied when asked about PEER's contention that he and his staff reclassified wilderness-quality lands. "I believe that they’re claiming that we have somehow violated the Data Quality Act of 2000. And we will have to take a look at their complaint, and respond to them accordingly after we review it.
"With regards to the determination that was issued as part of this release of the final EIS most recently, we put out the draft of the document last year," Superintendent Ramos said. "And through the fall we engaged in pretty intensive -- and believe me, intensive civic engagement -- we went on tour down here in southern Florida, had public meetings, we held wilderness hearings that were presided over by a hearing official, we accepted and carefully considered about 17,000 comments.
“And as a result of all of that civic engagement and interaction that we had with the community at large, all sides, we then made some adjustments and revisions to the plan that was just released."
PEER's contention that the final plan was concocted out of public review and input couldn't be further from the truth, the superintendent went on.
"We have acted in a very, very inclusive manner for the 11 years that it has taken us to get to where we’re at," he said. "If we did this for 11 more years I think that people would still be as polarized as they are today. ... I believe that we have heard every single perspective that is out there and carefully considered it."
PEER last week filed a complaint (attached below) with the Park Service "charging that the Big Cypress wilderness reanalysis violates the Data Quality Act which requires materials distributed or relied upon by federal agencies be accurate, reliable and in compliance with law and policy."
In that complaint the organization contends that "Park Service officials violated NPS Management Policies governing wilderness eligibility assessments and employed standards wildly inconsistent from those employed by both NPS and other federal land management agencies. PEER is demanding that the reanalysis be withdrawn and the 2009 wilderness assessment is reinstated or that a new, peer-reviewed assessment be performed."
“This transparent land-management gerrymandering does not pass the laugh test,” said Mr. Ruch. “It is no coincidence that the 40,000 acres formerly suitable for wilderness are now suitable only for ORV trails.”
As to the plan's impact on Florida panthers, Superintendent Ramos disagrees that it will be detrimental to their future.
"I agree that we all collectively need to be responsible to do what needs to be done to protect the panther, and to get it to its recovery so that it can be delisted," he said. "It’s a very special species that plays an important role in the Big Cypress and also in the greater Everglades."
Specific to the preserve's role in panther preservation, Superintendent Ramos said Big Cypress has reached its capacity for the animals.
"... every room is taken here at Big Cypress when it comes to panthers. We have a significant amount of panthers living at Big Cypress. They have been living here despite the fact that there is hunting and there is ORV use and there is oil and gas activities taken place," he said. "What concerns me the most is -- and I think we need to be paying more attention to -- is our success in working with private land owners outside of public lands in coming together to provide corridors and otherwise methods for us to allow the panther to have habitat to use successfully outside of the public lands, managed either by the state, local or federal government.”
The final ORV management plan for the Addition lands currently is awaiting final approval by the regional office. You can view the document at this site.