Group Urges NPS Director Jarvis To Reject ORV Plan For Big Cypress National Preserve

Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is being asked to reject a proposed off-road vehicle management plan for a section of Big Cypress National Preserve. NPS photo of forest in the preserve.

A Florida conservation group wants National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to reject the preferred off-road vehicle plan for the Addition lands in Big Cypress National Preserve. In a lengthy letter the South Florida Wildlands Association urges the director to "take a step that will truly fulfill the lofty language of the Organic Act of 1916" by setting aside more of the landscape for wilderness designation.

The voluminous letter, running nearly 10,000 words, outlines a range of problems the wildlands association believes the ORV plan will create. Among those issues are impacts to the endangered Florida panthers that live within the national preserve, perceived "unfairness" in the amount of ORV trails that would be allowed within the Addition lands, and unreasonable impacts to natural resources in the 147,000 acres spread across the preserve's northeastern corner.

The Addition lands came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. At the time the Addition was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed. When Superintendent Pedro Ramos released the final version of his preferred ORV 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 Director Jarvis' wishes and denied wilderness eligibility for 40,000 acres in the Addition section.

Superintendent Ramos, however, counters that everything was conducted above-board and that the reduction in acreage worthy for wilderness designation stemmed from his staff's review of more than 17,000 comments on the draft ORV plan.

But in his letter sent this week to Director Jarvis, Superintendent Ramos, and Southeast Regional Director David Vela, Matthew Schwartz of the wildlands association argues that "there are significant issues pertaining to policy, science, and law which NPS has failed to consider in the writing and publication of this plan. We request that NPS reconsider the signing of Record of Decision for this plan in light of these deficiencies."

While Superintendent Ramos said part of the rationale for his decision on the plan stems from the designation of Big Cypress as a "national preserve," and not a "national park," two park system classifications that carry different management duties, Mr. Schwartz contends that those distinctions don't matter when it comes down to the basic mandate given the Park Service by the National Park Organic Act of 1916.

"In my years of work on this issue for the Sierra Club and now with South Florida Wildlands Association, I have been frequently criticized by some members of the general public, but also by NPS staff, for not taking into consideration the distinction between a ‘park’ and a ‘preserve’ with regard to management decisions by NPS in BCNP," writes Mr. Schwartz, the wildlands association's executive director.

He went on to note that the off-road management plan adopted for the rest of Big Cypress notes that the preserve is to be managed "in a manner that will ensure its ‘natural and ecological integrity in perpetuity.’"

"The (enabling) legislation (of Big Cypress) further states the management of the area should be in accordance ‘with the provisions of the Act of August 25, 1916 (NPS Organic Act),'" he writes. "Thus, the natural and ecological integrity of the preserve is the fundamental value that Congress directed the National Park Service to protect."

Other items cited in the letter include:

* "The plan to open 130 miles of primary ORV trails (and a still unspecified number of secondary trails) in the Addition is inherently unfair. ... most of the BCNP is already open to motorized recreation for up to 2000 permitted ORV owners."

"This plan hardly provides for the 'equitable allocation and use of facilities' of the preserve. Nor does it seek to 'avoid conflict among visitor use activities.' Instead it brings the preserve from ‘mostly motorized’ to almost ‘completely motorized’—at the expense of the current users of the Addition who do not utilize motor vehicles and seek a different type of experience."

* A 2007 visitor use study of the preserve conducted by the University of Idaho "indicated that the most common visitor group activities were viewing wildlife (69%), taking a scenic drive (66%) driving through the Preserve to reach another destination (52%), and bird-watching (48%). Hiking and photography/painting/ drawing were also popular activities, at 39%. A smaller portion of visitors participated in more traditional forms of outdoor recreation, including picnicking (20%), camping (18%), airboating (18%), and fishing (15%). Only 9% of the visitors surveyed planned to canoe or kayak, and only 4% planned to hunt. About 7% of visitors interviewed had plans to drive off road vehicles within the Preserve. Around 6% of visitors participated in ‘other’ types of activities, which may include biking and horseback riding."

That study, Mr. Schwartz points out, also noted that "in terms of activities that visitors would like available in the Addition, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, fishing, canoeing, bird watching, biking, and hiking were the most frequently mentioned."

* The preferred plan would exacerbate user conflicts by designating ORV routes over trails currently used by hikers.

* "We would also like to point out that the completely untapped potential of the Addition Lands as a place to educate south Florida’s school children on their region’s natural heritage (with families or in cooperation with area schools) appears never to have been explored or even considered by NPS in their analysis."

* Mr. Schwartz also cites a report on the preserve produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2001 that negatively portrayed ORV use in Big Cypress.

ORV use in Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY) has impacted wildlife populations and habitats through modifications to water flow patterns (direction and velocity) and water quality, soil displacement and compaction, direct vegetation damage, disturbance to foraging individuals, and, ultimately, overall suitability of habitats for wildlife.

* The preferred plan would adversely impact Florida panthers by increasing human presence in the panthers' habitat and increased hunting pressures on their prey, contends the wildlands association.

"Whether the panther ‘can handle’ the anticipated impacts is very much up in the air and should immediately trigger application of the NPS’s ‘precautionary principle,'" writes Mr. Schwartz. "As stated in the current DOI Management Policies for the NPS: In cases of uncertainty as to the impacts of activities on park natural resources, the protection of natural resources will predominate."

* Rich botanical resources also would be imperiled by the proposed ORV plan.

"Dr. Jim Burch, supervisory botanist of the BCNP, has referred to Big Cypress as quite likely the most biodiverse land in the continental United States (personal communication, 2007)," Mr. Schwartz wrote. "The abstract of a well-known botanical study of the preserve published in 2003 in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, Plants of the Big Cypress National Preserve, reports the following:

"A new survey of the Big Cypress National Preserve shows that the vascular flora consists of 145 families and 851 species. Of these, 72 are listed by the State of Florida as endangered or threatened plants, while many others are on the margins of their ranges. The survey also shows 158 species of exotic plants within the Preserve, some of which imperil native species by competing with them. Finally, we compare the flora of the Big Cypress National Preserve with those of the nearby Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and the Everglades National Park. Although Big Cypress is less than half the size of Everglades National Park, it has 90% of the native species richness."

* " ... the enabling legislation required that the Addition be objectively evaluated for wilderness characteristics and that the NPS report those findings to the President for his approval and eventual transmittal to congress. Two early attempts at carrying out this mandate found well over 100,000 acres of wilderness eligible lands in the 146,000 acre Addition. The wilderness study actually released to the public in 2009 found 111,000 acres of wilderness eligible land. However in April of this year, with no notice to the general public, a re-evaluation of wilderness eligible lands took place which dropped approximately 40,000 acres of the Addition from wilderness eligibility....

"The Addition Lands are a national treasure," Mr. Schwartz concludes. "Added to the 582,000 acres of the original preserve by The Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988, the Senate report accompanying this legislation referred to the Addition as 'one of the few remaining large parcels of pristine land left in Florida' and noted 'its environmental importance and beauty is unquestioned.' On the House side, the Addition was referred to as an area of “unique wild beauty,” and as 'habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, including the Florida panther, the bald eagle, native orchids and many other species…'

"This is an opportunity for NPS administration to take a step that will truly fulfill the lofty language of the Organic Act of 1916. The reasons for steering clear of the current preferred alternative are abundantly clear. At a time when restoration of the Greater Everglades has become a national priority, this is not a time to turn back the clock on natural resource protection," he writes.

Comments

The rights of a relative few to engage in motorized recreation does not - I repeat NOT - trump the importance of protecting Public Trust resources like Big Cypress for the vast majority of the rest of us. Also, anything that can protect endangered species like the Florida Panther MUST be done. And if that means keeping joyriding yahoos out, the SO BE IT.

These animals are killed by motorists on the public highways also. Stop Driving anything in Florida!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you should be walking only making you fair game for the panthers allowing them to have a new food source and allowing them to get to numbers that will make people like you be more tolerant of other peoples forms of recreation.....

Hey Matt,
I think Hugh was talking about vehicles in Big Cypress not on public highways and the issue in Big Cypress has more to do than just protecting panthers. You should tone it down a notch.

matt stubbs:
These animals are killed by motorists on the public highways also. Stop Driving anything in Florida!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! you should be walking only making you fair game for the panthers allowing them to have a new food source and allowing them to get to numbers that will make people like you be more tolerant of other peoples forms of recreation.....
Big Cypress National Preserve is supposed to be their sanctuary while the Tamiami Trail (US-41) would not be. I know hunting is allowed, but certainly not of the Florida panther.

My understanding is that ORV use there is seriously impacting the quality of the natural resources. It might have been minimal years ago. There are other places in Florida for ORV users.

I've actually never been there any further than maybe a few hundred feet from US-41. They have a pretty nice visitor center with boardwalks for alligator viewing.

Hugh
This may very well be none of my business, but I am compelled to respond.
I don't know what kind of motorized vehicles are used to traverse the lands of Big Cypress National Preserve or what parts of it are involved. Apparently motorized vehicles have been in use in the park for some time. I have friends that enjoy all kinds of 2 wheel, 4wheel and other type of excursions disturbing very little in the process. Many improve more than they disturb. They are for the most part very responsible citizens and are good contributors to our country. I doubt they would criticize anything you do. They just see things differently than you. If you took time to talk to them you might find this to be true.
Anyone that would use the term "joyriding yahoos" in general terms, when referring to another group of citizens in our country is disturbing. Your comment "the rights of a relative few" and "the vast majority of the rest of us" says more about you. Give it some thought.
There is a group of citizens, in a different part of our country, confronted with people with the same mindset as you. Please consider what you are saying. You are not talking about machines. You are talking about people. Sure, there are some bad ones out there, but the 'vast majority' are good. I bet you are pulling for the Park Systim in these trying times. Wouldn't it be great to have EVERYONE pulling together.

Ron (obxguys)

Here's an NPT article from a few years ago:

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2007/12/big-cypress-national-preserve-more-orv-access-bear-island-unit-wise

And another one:

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2007/05/ruts-big-cypress-wilderness-and-endangered-species

I think one of the concerns is ruts that form when people try going around the mud bogs that form. This area is extremely wet, and I'd think the lack of pavement means that ORV use turns the designated trails into these big mud pits.

Thanks Y P W
I visited the articles and found them to be most informative. I found the comments equally interesting.
Like issues at other locations such as Cape Hatteras, there seem to be resounding criticism from those with opposing views. I too was curious about the photos. What time period do they represent, have controls been instituted, or can they be, to accomodate the concerns of all users. Three things stood out to me. The first picture of the deep wet ruts looked very disturbing. However, without knowing who and what actually made them and for what reason, I would not jump to any conclusions. If they are a result of "joy riding" I believe some controls would be in order. The other photos of basically dry areas with varying degree of vegetation brought to mind, ' what a great place to explore by ORV '. I believe I would be inclined to possibly restrict, by means of marked trails, where I see no real benefit to the spread of travel (area at base of slope with considerable vegetation). The factor being, is this an area of travel to simply get from point A to point B and enjoy the view along the way. Another area photo looked like a relately flat sparsely vegetated area that would make a great place for say the younger set to have a ball and expand their riding skills.
Now, not knowing the overall expanse of the land involved and just how much is being considered for orv access makes it hard to come to a conclusion as to what is reasonable. I certainly think that the use by all groups should be given equal consideration, wildlife included.
The question is, can you get people to be objective from all sides without selfish motivations interfearing. Too often, there is one side that has one agenda and that is to ultimately exclude the another. I hope things at Big Cypress can be worked out to everyones benefit and satisfaction. Looks like a neat place, well suited to all kinds of activities.Great place for our youth to enjoy and form an appreciation for nature and the great outdoors.

Ron (obxguys)

My understanding is that most of what's now Big Cypress National Preserve was originally slated to be part of Everglades NP, but the NPS wasn't able to purchase it from private landowners. It's certainly a part of the Everglades that deserves a high level of protection, but it has a different status.

I don't know if "joy riding" is the right term. It certainly sounded loaded to me. I guess the real concern is whether or not the marked trails can take the sort of capacity they get now. There can definitely be impacts even if all rules are followed. I think it's pretty obvious what caused those ruts. Heavy vehicles and lots of water. I've been in the area during a rainstorm.

I wouldn't necessarily attribute anything to "yahoos". I understand that most ORV users spend a lot of money on their vehicles and aren't risking damage. I doubt that most sane ORV users think they're stunt driving in an SUV commercial with one wheel off the ground at all times. I read about a 30 second Jeep commercial where that was the directive. They ended up towing away 10 Jeeps as each one was damaged by rocks hitting brake lines and/or suspension parts. I doubt most people want to be stranded like that.

Panthers don't eat people. Nor has anyone in Florida ever been attacked by one. We should protect the land set aside for wildlife and human enjoyment. I don't know why me need more and more miles of trails for ORVs. You want to enjoy the Big Cypress? Walk it.

While it's true that Florida panthers haven't killed anybody (at least not in modern times), I'm a tad uncomfortable with the statement "panthers don't eat people." The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is a cougar subspecies, and cougars that live elsewhere do occasionally prey on people. I am aware of one person killed by a cougar in a western national park (a child hiking with his family in Rocky Mountain National Park) and several adults killed or badly injured in cougar attacks on the West Coast. This is not to say that Florida panthers regard humans as prey, but only to say that they belong to a species that sometimes does.

Another Florida resident, the American crocodile, can be viewed in the same way. While Florida crocs have not killed people in modern times, their brethren in Central America (same species) most assuredly have. I would be reluctant to make the blanket statement that "Florida crocodiles don't eat people." One big croc that biologists found in the Everglades was estimated to be 16 feet long, and there is little doubt that crocs of that size consider people to be prey. If a "Florida crocs don't eat people" true-believer were to thrash around in the water some night near that 16-footer, there's an excellent chance that he wouldn't live long enough to pass along any more of his genes.

P.S.
to JP they are not wanting to add more trails they are simply trying to reduce the amount of trails. No one in their right mind as a NPS official or an environmentalist would suggest increasing access to National Parks that would be career suicide.

"Nor has anyone in Florida ever been attacked by one." (excellent research!)

Read the following for the real truth

http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/nov/30/tr-panther-attacks-fact-or-fiction/

In 1897, The New York Times recounted three panther attacks in the Sunshine State.

Understand that wild animals will attack if startled, provoked, injured, or with young.

Matt, the link you provided started out by saying that a man picked up a cub and was attacked...frankly, someone picks up my kid without asking I will attack as well.

I don't have any "fact and figures" but I would say that if you get killed by a panther, it's your time to go. The statistical changes have to be astronomically low. Remember a few years ago in FL when a few people got attacked by sharks? Although unfortunate for those who got attacked, there are less than 20 fatalities (documented anyway) worldwide per year. Every time we step outside our door, we have a far higher chance of getting mugged or shot than we do getting eaten by a panther.

I understand Ryan but some will insist that it NEVER happens. I was simply trying to oust the uniformed and people who are not willing to do a little research before speaking.

Please reread the end of my last post and add if you are stupid.

Or perhaps Hugh can refrain from calling others "yahoos"?

The sad part of this is most people crying foul over ORV use are doing so from their McMansions built upon what was previously the very swampland they claim to want to preserve. Give me a break!

Everyone loves to move into their new suburban neighborhood, look out into the undeveloped land over the wall and exclaim that we've got to protect the environment.

Penny wise, pound foolish.

i happen to be one of the "joy riding yahoos" me and several friends of mine take every oppurtunity we can to take my swamp buggy out there and go for a "sunday drive" i have met several people out there on there own swamp buggies and hunters on atv's as well... never once have i expierienced anyone nor have i myself gone out of the way or off the designated trail to avoid any ruts or deep water.. i built my swamp buggy specifically to handle these types of things and if it cant make it through then i dont need to go that way...there are tons of "activists" who have nothing better to do than complain about how orv use damages wetlands and so forth..and i bet you 99% of them have never owned nor been out on big cypress on a orv or orv trail....so until they do they need to keep there mouth shut since they dont expierience it first hand and just go by what there organization tells them